Once every five or so years, a large group of people, many of whom have never seen a stalk of rice or cotton, are charged with writing a new farm bill.

The thought of this is unnerving to say the least, but agriculture has an ace in the hole during this process – farmers who are conversant in both farm policy and the intricacies of the farming business, who can cajole congressional leaders and educate them if need be, or articulate without batting an eye on how a proposed policy might play out in the rural countryside.

One of those farmer leaders is Alto, La., rice farmer John Owen, chairman of the USA Rice Producers Group and chair of government affairs for the USA Rice Federation.

Owen didn’t expect to be caught up in the mad dash to the finish during the writing of the Agricultural Act of 2014. “The farm bill was supposed to be over before I became chairman,” Owen said with a smile. “But (former chairman) Linda Raun is extremely capable, and she did the lion’s share of the work. All I did was help carry the ball in from the five.”

Nonetheless, there were a few would-be tacklers between southern agriculture and the goal line, according to Owen. “I don’t think people realize how close to the brink we were of having a farm bill that provided very little support for the Delta. At one time, among the House Ag Committee leadership, Reps. Frank Lucas and Collin Peterson were the only advocates for a choice in farm policy options that were appropriate for all crops in all regions.”

Owen noted that Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran “was always there for us, but the Senate version of the farm bill was just not very friendly to Delta agriculture, until senator Cochran became ranking member of the committee.’’

Most of the differences among members of Congress were philosophical – whether to focus on a one -size-fits-all safety net program, or one that provided multiple options. Proposed changes for payment limitations and actively engaged rules were also on the table.

“At times, the process was very tenuous,” Owen said. “There were very strong, honest disagreements between the Senate and the House. Chairman Lucas understood quickly that we needed a farm policy program that worked for the entire country. And for that to happen, we needed a choice. Sen. Cochran also understood the need for a choice. There is not a grain of rice grown in Minnesota, but Rep. Collin Peterson fought for us the whole way. All of them recognized the importance of diversity in American agriculture.”

Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, “had very different ideas about the direction of production agriculture,” Owen said. “She’s from an area that has very diverse agriculture, but it’s much smaller.

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Owen believes that should a version of Stabenow’s farm bill been implemented, “farmers would’ve walked away from the government program, and instead of having more family farms, you would’ve had 20,000-acre farms and true corporate agriculture, not family agriculture.

Owen was often called upon to provide a farmer’s perspective in those negotiations, and he pulled from his 32 years of crop production. Today, Owen rents his rice farms to three fellow farmers, but manages irrigation on the farms and manages the grain elevator. The lighter duty has given him more time to devote to rice industry issues.

Owen says Reece Langley, vice president, government affairs for the USA Rice Federation and Joe Outlaw, Extension economist, Texas A&M University helped him make the case for southern agriculture. “Reece is very quiet and unassuming, and unbelievably influential. We had the best economist in Joe. You can’t argue with the facts. You can shuffle them around little bit, but we just won by showing that the numbers (for one size fits farm programs) didn’t work. We ran the spreadsheets. We ran 500 different price scenarios. His grad students were just groaning.”

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