If you want to get American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman riled up, just mention the recent Wall Street Journal article on Gunnison, Miss., cotton producer and National Cotton Council chairman Kenneth Hood.
Stallman, a rice producer and cattleman from Columbus, Texas, now in his second term with AFB, said the article, which accused Hood and U.S. cotton farmers of causing the collapse of cotton prices in southwest Africa, was a classic example that even a well-respected publication like the Wall Street Journal can fall under the spell of a well-orchestrated public relations campaign.
The campaign, launched by the Environmental Working Group, was designed to single out farmers, including Stallman and Hood, who received substantial payments from the government program.
“The EWG agenda was very specific,” Stallman said. “It was targeted, and it wasn't to help the American taxpayer. It was to restructure agriculture to the way they thought it ought to be. I'm convinced that most of the environmental community will not be happy until we're back to ‘40 acres and a mule.’
“In addition, they want to direct government funding to areas where they wanted it to go to. It was a very orchestrated public relations campaign. I'm sure they're probably pretty ticked off that they weren't successful (in scrapping the current farm bill).”
Stallman still shakes his head at the Wall Street Journal article, which attempted to connect U.S. subsidies with falling world prices and even international terrorism.
“You take a farmer in a Third World country that's rife with corruption, that has no infrastructure and no export taxes on their product and then try to make the case that our cotton supports are breaking that poor man.
“Excuse me, but if (the Wall Street Journal's) business news and investment analysis isn't any better than that, people better find another place to get it. Kenneth is a fine man and a good producer, and he's struggling to make it. Trying to compare the way he farms with the way a Third World country farmer farms is ridiculous.”
However, Stallman is concerned that the American public has such a difficult time grasping the complexities of the U.S. farmer's economic environment. And he has to admit that provisions such as target prices and the loan program “make it very difficult for the average citizen to understand.”
“They see a report that some farmer got a lot of money. The implication by those putting out those numbers is that it's money the farmer can take and put in the bank and go take a long vacation.
“But that's not how it works. Those payments go directly to the bank. And they're used to support all the suppliers and the infrastructure in the rural communities. But all that's left out of the news reports.”
While the EWG did cash in on America's lack of understanding of farm policy, it could not shake public confidence in the American farmer, according to Stallman.
“We did a survey a couple of years ago and found that the American public is willing to have tax dollars support American agricultural producers through tough economic times.
“Farmers still have a warm and fuzzy spot in people's minds. They know we're hard-working and provide a safe and abundant food supply for the county.
“The general sentiment of the public is reflected in the passage of the farm bill by a majority in the House and Senate and its signing by President Bush,” Stallman said. “The negative stuff we've been hearing in the media has been generated by the losers of the farm policy debate who didn't get their way. But without public support, you would not have seen passage of the bill.”
While America is still sympathetic to agriculture “we have citizens who are becoming further and further removed farming,” he added. “We are four or five generations removed. That linkage doesn't exist anymore. This creates a disconnect when farm policies are on the legislative agenda.”
The new farm bill “was not perfect,” noted Stallman. “But we came to a consensus and we think it's a pretty good bill for agriculture. Some say it's a reversal of what we wanted to do under Freedom to Farm. But I call it Freedom to Farm Plus.”
Stallman explained, “We kept government out of the supply management business. We kept direct, de-coupled payments, which aren't based on production.
“The only thing we added was a counter-cyclical, target price system which is de-coupled from production. It is coupled with price. But that was put in to replace Congress providing economic assistance to farmers through supplemental payments outside the farm bill.”
The new farm bill “also sets the stage for a strong negotiating posture in the WTO,” he said. “We're telling our foreign competitors who are complaining about it that it is consistent with our WTO obligations, but we're willing to negotiate to level the playing field.
“In essence, we're going to call their bluff. We're not going to maintain a $49 per acre average support for U.S. producers in the face of a $309 per acre average support for European Union producers.
“Japan's average support for producers is $4,406 per acre. You can't let that continue if you're serious about negotiating a new agreement. So our farm bill is providing leverage in the international trade contest.”