Tommy Irvin has been around the political track more than a few times. The Georgia commissioner of agriculture got his start in elective politics in 1956, has served 33 years in his present post, and is the dean of U.S. agriculture commissioners.
“I think this is going to be one of the most important years I've seen in agricultural politics,” he says. “We need to take a very close look at the people who represent us in Congress and insist that they do the job we elect them to do, rather than just play partisan politics.”
Addressing the opening session of the Beltwide Cotton Conferences in Atlanta, Irvin didn't mince words about the performance of some of those congressmen last year.
“I'd like to know — we all need to know — just why there weren't enough votes to get a farm bill passed. Some of these people didn't stand up to be counted when we needed them. If we're going to keep this nation's agriculture strong, we're going to need the support of our elected officials.”
In an increasingly urban Congress, agriculture doesn't have the clout that it did during the decades when more people were dependent on the land for a livelihood. An urban populace, which has little idea of how its food is produced or how it gets to the supermarket shelves, is bombarded by media stories that blast “subsidies to rich farmers,” lament the corporatization of agriculture, lecture about the environmental problems of farming, and play up the scare tactics of activist groups opposed to biotechnology and almost everything remotely related to progress.
“When I was a boy, my mama and I could pick a bale of cotton in two days,” Irvin recalls. And although cotton has made a significant resurgence in Georgia and the Southeast in recent years, he says, “Where I grew up, cotton has been gone for so long the people who live there now have no idea it was ever grown there.”
This naivete of the public regarding agriculture and its importance to the country's security and economy makes it even more vital that those who represent the sector in Congress be held accountable for their actions (or inaction), he says.
Also gone from Georgia and many other Southern states are hundreds of textile mills and apparel manufacturing plants that for decades were contributors to rural economies — driven out of business or moved offshore due to competition from cheap imports and cheap overseas labor.
Texas Tech economist Don Ethridge says losses in this sector constitute “the worst crisis since the late 1970s, when these industries modernized and went high tech in order to remain competitive.” But now, he says, “They're all high tech and the business is moving where production's the cheapest. My concern is that a lot of cotton production will follow textile industries offshore because transportation and other costs will make it cheaper for those plants to use foreign cotton.”
In the same week as the Beltwide conferences, the USDA released estimates that U.S. farm income will drop 20 percent this year without a new farm program or more aid from the government.
That's why it's important that agriculture know who its supporters are on Capitol Hill.