“When are we going to have a Secretary of Agriculture who is for agriculture?”

That rather pointed query from Marianna, Ark., cotton producer/ginner Larry McClendon, in response to the current secretary’s recent comments on farm programs at the National Cotton Council’s annual meeting in Washington, echoes the frustration of many in the farming community about the direction in which ag policy seems headed.

“The new secretary, when asked about farm program payments, said they have to take into consideration environmental issues, trade, the budget deficit, etc.,” McClendon said at the annual meeting of the Southern Cotton Ginners Association at Memphis.

“It’s almost unbelievable what’s coming out of Washington these days regarding agriculture — I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything so negative.”

And he said, somewhat wryly, “Thank goodness, we’re told that we’re all going to be able to make a living from sequestering carbon on our land and selling our products into emerging markets.

“When we farmers get a check from the USDA, we have to defend every dollar to the media and to a public that doesn’t understand how critical agriculture is to this country.

“When I started in cotton farming, the target price was 81 cents a pound. Now, it’s 71 cents and we have to contend with all kinds of tests, rules, and definitions. We’re all waiting now to see how the administration’s interpretation of farm bill provisions will affect us.”

While cotton has been losing support in Washington, McClendon said, “The ethanol industry in the Midwest has been gaining support. This year, $5 billion in subsidies will go straight to the big oil companies for blending ethanol with their gasoline.

“We could import ethanol from Brazil far cheaper than we can ever produce it here — but we can’t do that because the government’s 50-cent per gallon import tariff makes it uneconomical.

“We’ve also watched as trade agreements have resulted in the loss of our very best customer, the U.S. mills. Mill use of cotton was once 10 million to 11 million bales per year. Now, it’s just over 4 million.

“And we have to contend with the World Trade Organization and its two sets of rules: one set for the U.S., which seems to be against everything we do, and one set for developing countries, which basically have no rules. It’s just plain unfair.”

Ginners have been hit hard by the huge drop in cotton production, McClendon acknowledged. A number of Mid-South gins have shut down.

“Much of this has been because growers have viewed cotton as non-competitive with grains. The mindset the last couple of years has been ABC — Anything But Cotton. Some of it has been due to marketing issues; we’ve lost 30 percent of the markets we once had.

“These lost cotton acres and lost production have been a tragedy to local economies and tax bases. Corn and soybean money just doesn’t turn over in local communities the way cotton money does.”

Ginners have been scrambling to find other enterprises to see them through the lean times, McClendon said. “Some have gone into chemicals, fertilizer, crop insurance, or other businesses.

“We in the cotton and ginning sector have got to have options. The consolidation that’s going on in ginning isn’t good long term for our industry or the communities in which we’re located.”

e-mail: hbrandon@farmpress.com