“What do you think are the most important challenges facing the rice industry today?”

This wasn't going to be easy for me to answer, because I didn’t have an extensive professional or personal background in the rice industry. However, I anticipated the question would be asked, and conducted some research for an honest answer.

I responded that I believe there are two major challenges facing the industry.

First, we must maintain the federal safety net programs written into the last Farm Bill. The rice industry did an excellent job lobbying the Congress to write legislation beneficial to rice producers. It's not everything the industry wanted, but a significant accomplishment in view of the competition from other commodities, budget constraints and pressure from consumer and environmental lobbyists.

The major goal in the near term is to simply maintain the current programs, because we know certain members of Congress have targeted provisions (like payment limitations) for elimination. We can expect more attacks in the annual appropriations process, and on other agriculture bills moving through the House and Senate.

In order to defend current programs, and to lay the foundation for the next Farm Bill, we must develop and implement an extensive public relations effort to explain to taxpayers why federal programs for rice farmers are important for both urban consumers and rural America.

Secondly, the industry must aggressively market our product in domestic and international markets. The supply-demand equation is now out of balance. Because trade associations can’t control or even influence production, our charge is to "market our way to profitability."

Ensuring domestic and international promotion programs achieve maximum results with limited funds, and balancing the mix of activities at home and abroad, are challenges we’ll face every day. But success in these arenas will translate into immediate bottom line results for the rice industry.

Then, the Search Committee asked a question I didn't expect.

“Did you know that there are two organizations representing rice producers?”

“No,” I responded.

In the weeks and months after the interview, I've thought a lot about this question. As it turned out, there was a third major challenge facing the rice industry. Reuniting the two associations representing rice producers may be the most important challenge to address, because it will help address the first two problems.

In the short time since I've been with the Federation, I've had legislators, government officials and others tell me industry credibility is weakened by a two-organization structure.

As a professional trade association manager, I can honestly tell rice producers that supporting two staffs and offices is a misallocation of limited financial resources. Monies spent for duplicative administrative purposes should be redirected to expand government affairs efforts, public relations programs and activities that sell more rice worldwide.

Producers don't purchase more equipment than is necessary to raise a crop, and shouldn’t pay for excessive trade association overhead. At a minimum, the two organizations must cooperate and coordinate activities more closely to maximize program benefits to the industry we all serve.

I know that it is absolutely in the best interest of the rice industry to be united. And I know industry leaders from around the U.S. must take on this challenge, realizing that it’s for the good of the rice industry.

Stuart Proctor is the new president and CEO of the USA Rice Federation.

e-mail:sproctor@usarice.com