In a move sure to please Southern agricultural interests, Arkansas Senator Blanche Lincoln has been named chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Lincoln is widely viewed as a friend to Southern agriculture and has been credited with helping shape the last farm bill to the region’s benefit. She will set precedent as the first woman and Arkansan to helm the 184-year-old committee.

The announcement, which came Wednesday afternoon, was part of a Senate committee chairmanship reshuffle necessitated by the recent death of Sen. Edward Kennedy, who had chaired the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. Lincoln’s rise to chairman became possible when Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, who had been helming the Senate Agriculture Committee, agreed to take Kennedy’s former position. Harkin will immediately get to work on health care reform.

“Coming from a seventh-generation Arkansas farming family, and as a farmer’s daughter, I know my father is smiling down on me today,” said Lincoln — a Helena, Ark., native — in a Wednesday press conference. “I’m honored and it’s a privilege to serve as the Senate Agriculture Committee as chairman. … It’s a committee of significant importance to my constituents and (Arkansas’) economy.”

Lincoln has served on the Senate Agriculture Committee since being elected in 1998. Prior to that, during a stint in the House, she served on the House Agriculture Committee.

As agriculture is Arkansas’ economic backbone, becoming chairman of the committee has considerably strengthened Lincoln’s prospects for re-election in 2010.

During the press conference, Lincoln was quickly reminded of several difficult issues she will face in her new role. First up: how will she tackle climate change legislation considering the decidedly unenthusiastic response to it by agriculture groups?

“I do share many of their concerns in terms of the climate change bill that came out of the House. It does appear to present them with an unfortunate circumstance of probably increased input costs without an awful lot of the allowances that are being used to try and offset industries that will see increased input costs.

“I think agriculture has a much bigger role to play. I have no problem with our objective of trying to lower our carbon output, certainly lessen our dependence on foreign oil and, more importantly, get Americans back to work in some of these new renewable energy efforts.

“But I must say that creating this bill presents some issues, particularly for the farm community. If there’s anything I want, it’s to get things right.”

As chairman, Lincoln promised to strive for “balance. We have unbelievable diversity across this great country in terms of products we grow. I think enhancing that and creating an environment where everyone can be productive is key, particularly in this economic environment.”

Regarding farm bill implementation, “we negotiated a farm bill that got 80-plus votes. It’s critical when we negotiate those bills and put that before Congress and get that kind of response, it’s important that we follow through with implementing what was passed.

“It’s not only important in terms of process — and that we don’t let that process break down — but … it’s also for the people who are being ruled and regulated by the laws we create. It’s basically a contract with production agriculture and gives them with some … guidelines for a period of time. (Farming) is a very, very volatile industry with ups and downs caused by a multitude of things: disastrous weather, the marketplace, trade (and) input costs.”

Farm bills provide producers “consistency to be able to make business plans over a period of time. They know they’ll have good years and bad years. But to have something they can predict in terms of what the government environment will be for them is really critical.”

Asked about the USDA changing the definition of an “actively engaged” farmer, Lincoln was dismissive of the agency’s current approach. “I thought it was well-defined in the bill. If nothing else, (USDA) should certainly be doing it in consultation with (the Senate Agriculture Committee). If (the USDA) is confused about our intent, then they should work with us … so it’s done correctly.”

Lincoln also defended U.S. cotton in the wake of the recent WTO decision (for more see WTO rules against U.S. cotton). U.S. cotton has “a future and we have to ensure it has a future.” As U.S. cotton production “has gone down, we’ve seen increases in countries that have been screaming about the problems with competition. It doesn’t match up.

“We do what we do efficiently and effectively. Our growers are the most productive, most efficient. They’re the safest in terms of regulations they must meet, whether adhering to the Clean Water Act, the Clean Air Act or a host of other things.”

Lincoln did strike a note a bit different than Harkin when asked about regulation of the derivatives market — specifically for over-the-counter (OTC) derivatives. Unlike Harkin, who was contemptuous of OTC, Lincoln believes “there’s a very small, narrow place for over-the-counter. We’re investigating how that can be handled. There does need to be more transparency and I hope we’ll see more regulations on derivatives … and greater oversight.

Does she think more needs to be more done to crack down on excessive speculation by derivatives traders?

“Yes, I think there’s a spot for that.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com