American farmers traditionally don't say much about their role in the production of U.S. food and fiber. But these days, about the only thing humility gets you is bad press. Witness the malicious headlines about agriculture in a number of national publications last fall.
The president and chief executive officer of the U.S. Rice Producers Association believes it's time for producers to change this trend, and become more vocal. Agriculture's future — and really the security of U.S. food and fiber — depends on it.
“I've been involved in agriculture and international agriculture a long time,” said Dwight Roberts, CEO of USRPA, in Houston, Texas. “You see a lot of cycles in agriculture, good times and bad times. But I've never seen a cycle like this.”
Roberts is especially concerned about the state of the U.S. rice industry along the Gulf Coast, an area that includes both Texas and Louisiana.
What's happening? In effect, landlords are taking advantage of farm law loopholes that allow them to idle land and take money that was intended for farming tenants.
And it's not getting any better, according to Roberts. “Real estate speculators have learned a lot since the 1996 farm bill. We've been getting calls from investors, people living in the cities, asking about the farm bill, wanting to understand the farm bill and how it worked, what base acres were and purchasing land with and without base.”
Idled land leaves the rice producer in the lurch, with no resource base from which to pay expenses. Each year it gets worse, and rice acreage in Texas contracts, along with farmers and secondary and tertiary industries.
It could end up being more than just a Texas problem, according to Roberts. “People in USDA are now hearing about the same type of problems in Minnesota, Mississippi, Kansas and other states.”
To reverse this trend, farmers are simply going to have to start making some noise, according to Roberts. “Farmers must get more involved in the political process. I know that's not necessarily what they want to do. They'd rather farm and I can understand that.
“But the times have changed. Farmers are going to have be more aware of what's going on, use the Internet a whole lot more. Get computer savvy. Get more vocal and get more involved in the political process to get their story out.
“You just can't leave it to your elected representatives. You have to get involved in the process.”
A recent USDA listening session on the state of the Texas rice industry was a good start for producers, according to Roberts. Dozens of farmers braved Houston's congested downtown road system to talk for five minutes each about how the issue was crippling their ability to farm.
“I was glad to see that many farmers come,” Roberts said. “Sometimes, it's hard to get farmers active in a process that they're not comfortable with. This was obviously an indication that there is a great problem out there and their livelihood is at stake.”
Food processors need to join the effort to promote ag, too, according to Roberts. “Let's face it, the Cargills, ADMs and all the major food processors who have reported good profits the last few years are getting high-quality raw material from the farmlands. It's in their interests to join in the battle to enhance the farmers' image. We can't just leave it up to farm organizations.”
One place to start would be with a different kind of American hero, Roberts said. “I wish that on a box of Wheaties or Rice Krispies that they would put an American farmer. It would be a lot cheaper that putting Michael Jordan on there.”
On the other hand, taking agriculture's message to the American public is no easy task, Roberts admits. “We take food for granted in this country. It's so cheap. The percentage of per capita income spent on food in this country is embarrassing compared to the rest of the world.”
High food prices could turn the public's ear, or a problem with the food supply. But these examples suggest an increased reliance on imported food. “When bread goes to $4 a loaf, milk goes to $6 a gallon, it will get people's attention,” Roberts said. “But by then it's too late. Once farmers go out of business, it's not easy to get back into farming.
On the other hand, USDA may be somewhat hamstrung on what it can do about the landlord/tenant issue, noted Roberts. “Opening the farm bill to make changes is a scary thought for farmers. It's received so much negative press. There would be concern about the direction it may take.”
Roberts stresses a continued assessment of the landlord/tenant issue. “If it's not corrected, it's going to get worse. Then the entire agriculture effort and the farm bill is going to get an even bigger black eye in the eyes of the average voter out there. It will heap that much more criticism on the agriculture issue.”
Roberts admits that the current oversupply situation in rice doesn't help rice producers. “That's the type of thing that our competitors around the world like to hear. The unfortunate thing about that is that we have this surplus of food, yet there are millions of people out there starving. Something's wrong there if there's not the infrastructure to give the food to them, or if there are political agendas like in Africa and parts of Asia.
“I think there are enough hungry stomachs in this world that could use the food if we could break down some of the political barriers and issues.”