One major disappointment last fall was the failure of Congress to provide any real assistance to producers of rice and other commodities who have suffered from disastrous weather conditions in 2009.

Farmers in the Mid-South have been especially hard hit by continuing wet weather that has resulted in the declaration of almost every county in states like Mississippi, Arkansas, and others as disaster counties.

Despite losses estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars, Congress failed to provide any meaningful assistance to producers affected by these disasters. It wasn’t for lack of trying however.

In the Senate, Mississippi Sens. Thad Cochran and Roger Wicker along with Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, introduced legislation to provide some prompt, meaningful assistance to disaster stricken farm operators. Companion legislation was introduced in the House by Arkansas Rep. Marion Berry and Mississippi Rep. Travis Childers.

The U.S. Rice Producers Association has supported these efforts in the industry and in the halls of Congress and will continue to do so.

These good efforts were victim of a shortage of time and opposition ranging from the American Farm Bureau Federation to the crop insurance industry. The objections range from disaster “policy” concerns, to efforts to protect and enhance the income of the crop insurance industry. All of these arguments ignore the fact that neither crop insurance nor the SURE program was designed to assist rice farmers. It is unfortunate that these efforts to protect policy purity impair the livelihood of rice farmers.

Challenges loom

Congress allowed rice and other program crop farmers to focus on farming in 2009 without threatening the underlying safety net. President Obama’s fiscal 2010 budget included a list of ill-advised proposals to cut funding to family farmers, but all of these were opposed strongly by USRPA and rejected by Congress.

With unprecedented budget deficits looming for the foreseeable future, at some point Congress will have to rein in federal spending. The president’s fiscal 2011 budget due in February may again propose cuts to the farm safety net. But with unemployment remaining over 10 percent nationwide, we believe the strong advocacy of USRPA and the rest of agriculture will prevail upon Congress to forestall any wholesale program cuts in 2010.

However, 2011 and beyond are pregnant with the potential for attacks on the farm safety net in the name of “deficit reduction.” USRPA will continue to emphasize to policymakers the importance of these programs to the rural economy, the public health, and our export picture.

Perhaps more immediately, it is expected that USDA may soon propose further administrative cuts to the farm safety net through changes to the payment limitation rules. If made effective for the 2010 crop year, this will represent the third set of payment limit rules that producers will need to comply with in as many years. If so, we will oppose this “lawyer tax” on family farmers, and work with others to defeat it.

And in another challenging twist, now that congressional work on major climate change legislation has stalled, the Environmental Protection Agency is looking at imposing onerous new regulations on farmers through both the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Proposals on both fronts would disproportionately harm rice producers, increasing their costs and restricting their ability to operate.

Ironically, the EPA and congressional proposals would impact rice producers for the same reasons that rice production is beneficial to wildlife and the environment. Only in Washington could “good environmental policy” most hurt those who do the most for wildlife and the environment. Needless to say, USRPA will continue to fight for producers in combating these policies from the bizarro world.

Recited above are just some of the 2009 policy victories and 2010 challenges facing rice producers, and actively being pursued by USRPA. There are more, including the state of the federal estate tax, challenges to our export credit guarantee programs, pending trade agreements, and international climate change talks.

In the face of the current recession, weather disasters, and other challenges, we are hopeful that the Obama administration and Congress will not add insult to injury through imposing ill-advised farm safety net, environmental, trade, and economic policies on the beleaguered. But experience teaches us that hope is not enough. So USRPA will continue to push hard to support policies that help rice producers grow a crop and feed their families, and to oppose policies that hinder producers’ ability to profitably feed the world.

Committee changes

Among the many leadership changes in Washington in 2009, some that bode well for rice producers occurred relatively late in the year.

With the passing of Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy in August, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin — chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, at the time — took over the reins of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. As a result, Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas ascended to the chairmanship of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Lincoln hails from an Arkansas rice-farming family. Her knowledge of rice farming and agriculture in general is unparalleled in the Senate. Rice producers could not ask for a better champion to represent agriculture as chairman of the committee.

Fred Clark is a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., for the US Rice Producers Association.