For those indoctrinated in Southern hospitality, it wasn't a surprise that Ken Cook took the Arkansas State University stage to polite applause. And for those familiar with the Environmental Working Group's track record, it also wasn't a surprise his message was seen as unfriendly to Southern agriculture.

“You may have formed some opinions about our work,” he said at the 2006 ASU Agribusiness Conference. “And you may even have concerns about how we project our ideas into the public debate.”

For agriculture subsidy proponents, this assertion was a gross understatement. EWG showed up on the general public's radar screen in 2002 when it set up a database listing agriculture subsidy recipients. Since then, the Web site has received millions of hits and raised Cook's profile. Perhaps most worrisome for many is that heading into the 2007 farm bill debate Cook has the ear of Congress.

During his ASU presentation (and in a lengthy interview with Delta Farm Press prior to the conference), Cook spoke about EWG's philosophy, history and plan for attack as the next farm bill approaches.

After working at the World Wildlife Fund, Cook started the EWG in the late 1980s. A big fan of conservation programs, Cook was especially happy with the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP).

“It worked very well in the 1985 farm bill and we wanted the same for water quality and wetlands and endangered species…A number (of organizations) got into the 1990 farm bill trying to expand (conservation programs). Many were concerned with working land issues best dealt with on a voluntary incentives-based approach. The plan was, farmers could volunteer to take on water-quality issues and society would say, ‘Okay, we'll help you with all, or a large chunk of, the cost.’ That's where we were coming from.”

For those willing to check 1990 archives, Cook insists an extensive record backs his assertion that conservation groups stood with agriculture to defend commodity programs. However, after the 1990 farm bill, “there wasn't serious interest in voluntary conservation programs. There wasn't any interest in making sure there was money available for those programs…Up until 1992-93, we remained hopeful we'd have the voluntary incentive programs fully funded.”

With this development, Cook admits to a shift in perception in the early 1990s. He no longer saw commodity programs as a complement to conservation, but as a competitor. The EWG then began making the case to taxpayers and policymakers that too many commodity programs “are wasteful for taxpayers and too much money is going to too few people. We felt conservation investments would help more farmers, more equitably, than plowing all this money into commodity programs.”

2007 farm bill

How will the EWG approach the 2007 farm bill debate? Is the organization already talking to Congress?

“We are. The ranks of people interested in reforms are growing. They've swelled since the budget reconciliation when farmers took essentially no hit.

“We need a much more significant investment in conservation. And we're going to emphasize the fact that there are an awful lot of farmers — some states are full of them — that haven't gotten a penny of subsidies for decades. They have conservation needs; rural development needs…all kinds of things where they need to see a federal stake in support. So far, they've gotten nothing for 70 years. We'll reach out to them along with wildlife groups. It'll be a lively debate.”

Subsidy killjoy

Does Cook think subsidies are always bad? “There are instances where they're needed. We've always felt there should be a safety net of some sort.

“We don't know exactly where the line should be drawn but there should be a point beyond which, if you're getting government subsidies at a certain level, you should be on your own. Most farmers get no subsidy money…You should be able to say to the very large operations — whether owned by a family, a partnership, a corporation, whatever — that they should be able to make it alone in the marketplace.”

Cook hears Southern agriculture spokesmen and members of Congress saying, “‘We want open markets. But until we have them, we want subsidy programs to stay the same forever. It doesn't matter how much they cost, how much we have to pay individual operations. Anything less than that is not sustainable.’

“To me, that set of arguments is what's causing the (negative public) reaction. It isn't small versus large family farms. Instead, people are looking at the money being spent and saying, ‘If you can't get by on (the proposed payment limit of) $250,000 a year, something is wrong.’”

Cook told the ASU audience the pro-subsidy position he hears most often, “particularly from Southern agriculture, is any payment limit would prevent farms from surviving. In other words, (they want) unlimited payments no matter how big the operation gets or Southern agriculture won't survive.”

To Cook, “that's a completely implausible argument. But that's what we're hearing. I think it's completely indefensible to say that some farms, simply because they're bigger, should get unlimited benefits. It's ridiculous and sounds ridiculous. If you don't hear it sounding ridiculous…you need to step out and talk to some folks who get no government money…

“When most people hear ‘$250,000 per person…or household,’ they believe that's a huge level of support. It doesn't have to do with how expensive a combine is — life is expensive. And that's how those who don't get any money hear this…especially if it's money they don't have to repay.”

Cook pointed at college student loans for comparison. “Families apply for them every year and fill out detailed information to see how much they can get…There's no stigma attached to it, it's just required to get the loan that your child will have to repay. And there are limits on how much student loans can be.

“There ought to be a point — no matter how efficient you are, how expensive your equipment is, or how much you need the money — when you're on your own in the marketplace. That's especially true when you talk to a fruit or vegetable grower who gets nothing. They have many of the same globalization and environmental pressures to deal with. Cost of production for many fruits and vegetables is much higher than rice or cotton.

“So we must step back and say, ‘What do we want? What's our plan?’”

More fuel for the fire

Cook is unimpressed with claims that U.S. regional farming differences should be taken into account when debating subsidy limits.

“There are different farming environments in vegetable operations in Minnesota and fruit operations in California that get no subsidies. So this argument that it's more expensive to grow rice and cotton is ridiculous.

“We didn't go around and say, ‘Let's line up the most expensive agricultural commodities and start subsidizing them a lot because it's so expensive to grow them.’”

Asked if he wants less rice or cotton grown, Cook says he does.

“We're growing for the export market. We grow far more than is needed domestically. We've expanded the sub-sectors of the commodity economy to the point where we're desperately dependent on continuous export growth.

“I believe this is the second biggest Arkansas rice crop. I have a background in soil science and chemistry, so I admire that technical feat. It's amazing what farmers and technology have done — but towards what end?”

Too many assume there will be a government role no matter how much rice is produced, said Cook. “If it was just a matter of domestic supply, the current policy has more than taken care of that. So why are we committing to these subsidy programs?”

Cook believes it comes down to the fact that certain “sectors” have been built up. Farms and equipment are getting bigger, at least in part, he says, because subsides allow the investment. That leads to a spiral where none are capable of “letting go” of subsidies.

“Are we going to keep expanding production whether or not there's a market abroad? On rice, we're exporting a high-quality food product. You can't beat Arkansas rice. That's the truth. But if the world doesn't need it at a price that Arkansas producers can afford to grow it, maybe the market should be listened to. Subsidies contort the situation.”

What about food security? Comparisons are frequently made (including at the ASU conference) between U.S. reliance on foreign oil and how that could translate to importing food. Isn't it better to subsidize a steady, safe food supply?

“That's my favorite argument. Here we have a sector that's completely dependent on convincing the rest of the world to buy our stuff. And the argument we're making is, ‘Oh, my God, we don't want to become dependent on foreigners for food, do we?’ How's that for a sales pitch?”

One of the major irritants of the EWG database is bulk numbers. A prime example is the EWG showing Riceland receiving millions of dollars in subsidies but not saying the payments are being spread across some 9,000 co-op members.

“That's my second favorite argument,” retorted Cook. “EWG has put up 135 million records of farm subsidy payments. Would we put up 9,000 more? Of course! But we don't have them.

“The big co-ops won't disclose (payment breakdowns). If they're so concerned, they could disclose that information. Currently, we're in a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) fight with USDA and when we get that data, we'll publish it.”

At the ASU conference, Cook said farmers tend to speak of inputs, crop costs and management. He's surprised they don't mention rent as often.

“It would seem if you lowered subsidy benefits, you'd lower rental rates…For beginning farmers and those who'd like to expand their operations, the fact that subsidies fitting into land prices and rental rates — and expectations of rental rates — lift the cost of production…

“That raises this issue: if we lowered subsidy values, land costs wouldn't be so high. I'm very interested in hearing from the banking community (on this). Over time, if we had a safety net that didn't raise land values, what would be the implications for the banks?”

On the current WTO negotiations, Cook said the potential for an agreement is almost nil. “We've been working for (18 months). I don't see a great scenario, a great outcome. I don't think there's a big deal coming, not even a bad deal coming. The trade round will peter out without much happening…We will see more (trade) cases brought against the United States.”

Cook nearly made it out of the ASU conference without facing vocal opposition from the crowd. But with lunchtime approaching and the morning session's Q and A winding down, Harvey Joe Sanner, a farmer and activist from Des Arc, Ark., stood in the third row and took his shot. Eschewing a microphone, Sanner loudly asked Cook if he was “ready for the carnage you're trying to force on rural America. Your arguments are fraught with dishonesty…(Your suggestions) are reckless and dangerous.”

The loud applause Sanner's comments generated only confirmed the coming farm bill debate will be rough, indeed.


e-mail: dbennett@prismb2b.com