When Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry announced his plans to not seek re-election to Congress, the state and the rest of the Mid-South was put on notice it was losing a staunch, vocal advocate for agriculture.

Two days later, in an interview with Delta Farm Press, Berry, who has represented Arkansas’ First District for six terms, said he’ll serve out his current term fighting for farmers, and discussed why he finds political races irresistible and why Cuba/U.S. trade policy remains a failure.

Among his comments:

Like many of our readers, I was surprised at your recent (retirement) announcement. … Could you talk about (it), especially since the latest poll numbers showed you were sitting pretty?

“Our poll numbers were good.

“After the first of the year, I went back to my doctors — which I do periodically — and I had some health issues ... I was made aware of after a battery of tests. They aren’t life-threatening but are very difficult to deal with.

“That certainly played a big part in (the retirement). I’ve got other close family members who are also having some trouble. It all kind of came together and made me think I need to be at home and do my share. Since 1993, everyone else has been taking care of my business in a very generous and successful way. It’s time for me to go home.

“I hate to leave here. I’ve loved it. I got into politics because of agriculture and … being able to be involved in public policy. I’m going to really miss that.”

Any chance you’ll still be involved on the agriculture side? A chance you’ll lobby?

“I haven’t considered doing that. You never know what will come along.”

As for lobbying, “I’m prohibited for two years. I can’t have (lobbying) contact with former colleagues and staff for two years. I don’t have any plans, at this time, to consult or anything like that.

“I hope to be able to keep my hand in Arkansas politics and agricultural policy at both the state and federal levels for a long, long time. It just depends on how long I live and maintain my senses. But I don’t intend to just disappear.”

Are you looking at endorsing a candidate in the coming months?

“Once the field is developed, I suspect I will. I’ve always found it irresistible not to be involved in races.

“My former chief of staff, Chad Causey, is certainly considering (a run) strongly. He resigned (on Jan. 24) and is back in Arkansas now getting everything organized. I expect him to run and he’ll be an outstanding candidate. That’s a good thing about Arkansas and Democrats — we’ve got a strong bench.”

On to current congressional business … what about the potential for disaster payments? Several weeks ago, you were pursuing it but nothing had solidified. Is that still the case?

“Yes, that’s the case. The president will make his State of the Union address tonight and call for fiscal restraint. I don’t think that will help our chances very much.

“We’ll just have to see what comes. (President Obama) hasn’t demonstrated any particular affection for the agricultural community, so I don’t expect any miracles to come out of the address. The best we can hope for is he doesn’t decide to rob Peter to pay Paul and use (agriculture) as the vehicle to solve some of his problems.”

On agriculture and the EPA…

“One reason I’m pleased I have almost a year left to serve is I expect an assault from the EPA on production agriculture. That’ll come in a lot of different forms. We’ve already got an issue with atrazine.

“I think there will be plenty of defensive actions to be involved in. I’ve always enjoyed those battles and look forward to participating in them for as long as I’m here. We’ll see how it comes out.”

On the next farm bill…

“I won’t be around when the next farm bill is written, but I think we’ve probably seen the last one where direct payments are used. I think it’ll move in the direction of some kind of yield/price insurance-type protection where the farmer will pay at least a portion of the premium.

“Let’s just hope that whatever money the government ends up spending will end up going to farmers, not people who aren’t involved in production.

“If we’re able to hold what we got in the (latest farm bill) I think we’ll be very fortunate.”

You hit on trade with Cuba regularly. It seems, if the numbers are to be believed, if we’d just change the way we deal with Cuba it would … provide agriculture markets with a needed infusion of revenue. Has there been any shift on Capitol Hill regarding this?

“There is a working group that’s actually got legislation that deals with (U.S./Cuba) travel first.

“There is a capacity to do some of these things with an executive order from the White House. I haven’t heard of any movement on that from the White House. It sure would be helpful for them to do that.”

The Cuba trade embargo “may go down in history as one of the most senseless, bad public policies that has extended over so many years. It certainly has been ineffective and stupid.

“We have the support in the House to pass a bill that would end the embargo and allow reasonable travel between Cuba and the United States. We continue to work on that and are still trying to (get it done). I think it would be a big shot in the arm for the economies of both countries. Why we haven’t done it already is beyond me.

“It’s one of those things where you just keep working, looking for an attractive spot to put the legislation. I’m in hopes it will happen.”

Anything else?

“I’m still very comfortable with the assets in Mid-South agriculture. I’m very optimistic about the future of Mid-South agriculture.

“I don’t know exactly what it will look like in 15 years. But I sure do want to live long enough to see the end of the movie.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com