While you're busy at home during the growing season, it's important to keep up with what's going on in Washington. Decisions are made daily that impact your bottom line. As chairman of the USA Rice Federation, I can assure you that we work year-round on your behalf to advance — and when necessary, to defend — the interests of the rice industry. Here's an update on two important issues.
Preserving farm bill
Our message in Washington is clear. We don't want the farm bill pulled apart. The support levels authorized in the farm bill need to be honored. I know many in my community — and I suspect yours — relied on the support levels promised in the new farm bill to obtain financing from their local lending institutions this spring. Yet, many are now nervous that Congress will reduce farm program benefits to pay for various spending priorities. USA Rice will continue to oppose any funding cuts to agriculture and the rice industry in particular.
As if budget woes weren't enough to worry about, we continue to face attacks on farm program benefits in the form of “payment limit” legislation. This debate continues to perplex me because the main argument used is that “farmers are getting rich off government assistance.” Maybe I am missing something but I don't see a whole lot of people getting into farming. If it's such a sweet deal, why are small towns drying up all over the countryside?
Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, is leading the charge to further restrict farm program benefits. His bill is pretty much a “wish list” of everything we in the rice industry do not want to see: reduced limits on counter cyclical payments, reduced direct payments and reduced marketing loan benefits. Sen. Grassley's payment limitation legislation would dramatically impact your bottom line. I urge you to let your congressional delegation know that agriculture can't take any more cuts. Payment limit legislation must be defeated.
Iraq — aid market
Restoring our historic market share in the important rice market of Iraq would immediately increase profitability for producers and millers. We worked to see that rice was allocated for initial distributions of food aid for Iraq, but we know U.S. rice can play a larger role. Rice is a main component of the Iraqi diet and we have plenty available in the United States. We are encouraging Congress and the administration to use U.S. rice to address the ever-growing humanitarian needs resulting from the war effort.
We are keeping Capitol Hill informed on Iraq's food aid rice needs. As a direct result, members of Congress have been able to use up-to-date rice information in drafting their communications to the administration on humanitarian food aid for the Iraqi people. We certainly need and appreciate the support of our friends in Congress on this effort.
Looking forward, we also submitted a proposal to USDA stressing a fair transition to a commercial market. The U.S. rice industry must be given a chance to regain a position in the eventual Iraqi market that approximates our historic market share. We need to remember that Iraq was our top export market at one time, taking over half a million tons of milled rice in some years. USDA must provide sufficient export financing at levels commensurate with those before the first Gulf War. USA Rice is well positioned to undertake marketing activities in Iraq when the time comes. We are proposing a market-development action plan to USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service.
As we're back into the fields, USA Rice staff and leadership will continue our efforts on these and other issues — every day, year-round.
Gary Sebree is an Arkansas rice producer and chairman of the USA Rice Federation.