U.S. agriculture — and particularly southern agriculture — faces perhaps the most daunting challenge in decades to get its message before Congress and the administration, says Chip Morgan, executive vice president of the Delta Council at Stoneville, Miss.

With the crafting of the 2012 farm bill in the hands of predominantly non-southern House and Senate Agriculture Committee members, many of them brand new to Congress, “our challenge is to make a concentrated effort to educate the new members about the importance of agriculture and to emphasize to them that one policy may not fit all segments of agriculture,” he said at the annual meeting of the Mississippi Rice Council at Cleveland, Miss.

“It’s more important than ever that all the commodity and ag organizations work together on goals for farm legislation and to find common ground with specialty crops and conservation interests.”

Morgan says it’s “my personal view that Congress won’t begin writing a farm bill this year, and I think it’s entirely possible they won’t get around to it next year either.

“With the big turnover in Congress last November, particularly in the House, and all the turbulence surrounding the issues of the national debt and the budget deficit, it’s going to be difficult to focus much attention on other legislation.”

The 2010 elections were markedly different from those in the past, he says, in that a number of members in key ag leadership positions either didn’t get re-elected or retired.

Key friends of agriculture lost

“We lost a lot of very good friends of southern agriculture, including Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, who headed the very important Senate Agriculture Committee.”

There are four new Republicans and four new Democrats from rice states on the House Agriculture Committee, Morgan notes, and two new senators from rice states on the Senate Agriculture Committee.

“On the Senate committee, there is no Democrat from a rice state. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who heads the committee, has a background with specialty crops and organic production. However, she has already evidenced a keen interest in all commodities and she has begun to assemble a very capable staff.  Pat Roberts, R-Kan., is the ranking minority member of the committee; he is best known for writing the Freedom to Farm legislation of 1996.

“We’ve really got a lot of work to do to cultivate relationships with the new committee leadership and new members.”

Morgan says he’s frequently asked why agriculture revenue programs are seldom slanted toward southern crops.

“You have only to look at the makeup of the ag committees — on the Senate side, committee members are predominantly from Midwest states; only four members are from the South. On the House ag committee, only 17 of 46 members are from southern states.”

The major focus of the new Congress, Morgan says, will be the fiscal 2012 budget, budget reconciliation, and fiscal year 2012 appropriations, and an appropriation to fund the government after March 4 of this year.

“Congress currently is wrangling over appropriations for the 2011 fiscal year, and the government is operating under a continuing resolution that expires March 4. The Republicans are threatening to shut the government down if they don’t get the spending cuts they want.

Agriculture cuts of 23 percent

“For the 2011 fiscal year, the recommendation is for an average 10.3 percent funding cut across all federal agencies, but the cuts for agriculture would amount to an estimated 23 percent cut. Delta Council and other farm organizations are sending letters to the leadership, pointing out the disparity in these proposed cuts, and we’re going to try and work with the Congress to get this changed.

“But there is a tremendous amount of pressure on members of both houses to cut spending. A lot of them came back from the recent holiday recess with their constituents’ message emblazoned on their foreheads: Cut spending! This has potential for a tremendously adverse impact on agriculture.”

With non-entitlement spending representing only about 3 percent of the federal outlays, “to try and balance the budget with cuts that do not include cuts in entitlements, someone is being a bit disingenuous about their real commitment to deficit reduction,” Morgan says.

“Approximately 70 percent of the federal budget is for entitlement programs such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, etc., and 20-plus percent for defense — unless something is done to rein in spending for these programs, none of us will live long enough to see a balanced budget by only cutting out agriculture programs, Teach for America, the Peace Corps, ports and harbor maintenance and other discretionary spending that is less than 10 percent of the budget pie”.

“If these drastic cuts are enacted, it will have a massive impact on the economy, with widespread job losses. At some point, this hoax is going to be exposed by the mainstream media, which to this point have pretty much overlooked it.”

Majority of ag funding is for nutrition

Almost 75 percent of the money for agriculture goes to nutrition programs, Morgan notes, while only 10 percent is for commodity programs and the remainder for research, food safety and other discretionary spending. 

“Another problem we face in getting across agriculture’s message is that we do not know the ‘go-to guy’ for agriculture in the White House. In previous administrations, there was always someone on the White House staff who knew agriculture that we could work with. In the current administration, we haven’t been able to find that go-to person for agriculture. That’s distressing, because the White House will make the first shot across the bow when it comes to writing the 2012 farm bill.

“One thing we learned from the 1996 legislation is that while regulatory reform, tax, and trade policy are important, they are not an adequate substitute for effective farm policy. The high prices we’re seeing now for commodities won’t always be there. It’s hard to think about going back to the days of $5 soybeans and 50-cent cotton — but neither would anyone have believed that we would see $13 beans and $2 cotton.”

Morgan said Mississippi’s grower-supported rice research and promotion is “money well-spent — your funds help make things happen for the benefit of everyone who grows rice.”

He noted that legislation has passed both the Mississippi House and Senate to renew the state’s Rice Research and Promotion Act and to eliminate the repealer provision in the act. “There was no opposition, and we’re waiting now to see if it has to go to conference.”

He said the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation “has done a great job of promoting the state’s agriculture; its Mississippi Farm Families media campaign is outstanding, and the Mississippi Rice Council is to be commended for helping to support this effort.”