Early August has been very busy for Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln. Shortly before the Senate’s late summer recess, the Senate Agriculture Committee chairman helped secure new child nutrition legislation, promised agriculture disaster funds from the White House and oversaw a hearing on trade.

Lincoln also urged fellow politicians to fund the Pigford/USDA settlement and, citing the need to protect Americans’ health, pushed the USDA to take over seafood inspections.

Lincoln spoke with Delta Farm Press on Aug. 6, en route to her home state where she will continue her reelection campaign. Among her comments:

On trade hearing high points…

“We’re conducting a series of hearings to get the process of the 2012 farm bill (underway). Trade is such a critical issue for agriculture that we want to make sure we have hearings focused on that.

“I think the hearing highlighted what trade can do for job creation. The president (has) mentioned one of the best ways to create jobs is to increase exports. One of the huge opportunities we have to increase exports and create jobs is through agriculture.

“One thing I brought up — and I was pleased to have good support from other members and (Montana) Sen. Max Baucus — is opening up trade and travel restrictions with Cuba. We’re anxiously pursuing that.

“This year is the fiftieth anniversary of our self-imposed ban on trade with Cuba. It’s blatantly clear to me, and should be to most others, that anything we were to accomplish from that ban has already been accomplished. And it was very little. The people that are hurting are the Cuban people and the farmers in this country.

“Cuba has been a great market for us in years past. It could be again, being less than 100 miles from our borders.

“We didn’t get much of a response from (U.S. trade) Ambassador Ron Kirk on (Cuba) because there were so many other topics (to cover). But I do think the (Obama) administration is open to looking at the possibilities of relaxing those trade and travel restrictions. I want to keep reminding them of what it means to us in terms of job creation.

“We also talked about for every additional $1 billion in agricultural products we export we create 9,000 jobs. With the great opportunities that exist in other bilateral agreements we’ve already spent time and money negotiating, we could already be moving forward — Panama, Columbia and South Korea.

“Those (trade deals) are big for us and could be meaningful with the Panama Canal under reconstruction. Also, Canada has negotiated an agreement with Columbia that will go into effect (early in 2011). If we don’t get our act together and pass the Columbia Free Trade Agreement, the Canadians will take (the lead) and run with it.”

The Republicans — in House hearings, as well — are tying the Cuba bill to the other (pending) trade deals. Do you think that’s something your party could get behind?

“I can’t speak for everyone in my party but I’m certainly advocating trade with Cuba. There’s a way to do it that doesn’t even require the kind of negotiations that have occurred for the other three (nations)…

“When you talk about relaxing the trade and travel restrictions to Cuba, it would nearly double the current amount we currently export annually. It would generate business activity valued at well over $1 billion.

“We need to know, as a nation, that we’re fully engaged and in the middle of a global economy. If we don’t engage in it and negotiate trade agreements and get them passed, we’ll continue to take a back seat to other countries already doing it. Look at the trade going on in Cuba with the Canadians, the Dutch, the Germans and others.

“Cuba is importing rice from Vietnam. They’d much rather have U.S. rice — and think how meaningful that would mean to Southern rice farmers to have that market again. We had that market at one time, during the 1950s. I talk to farmers who remember when we traded with Cuba.”

On the passage of the child nutrition bill that will provide $4.5 billion for increased meals and improved nutrition standards for low-income children…

“We’ve got a crisis situation right now in terms of hunger, a crisis of obesity in our children. This is an opportunity to turn that around.

“For the first time since 1973 we’ve increased the federal reimbursement for school-feeding programs. We’ve also expanded them for the needs of today — both parents work, an extended school day with after-school programs. Now, schools will be able to serve a full meal instead of just a snack. Now, we won’t send them home hungry.

“Hunger doesn’t stop when the school bell rings. And not all children go immediately home to a nutritious meal.

“With that (federal reimbursement increase), we’re also tying standards and making sure the meals we’re feeding children during the school day are nutritious…

“On top of that, we’re not just talking about standards for meals in the lunch room but also the vending machines and ala carte. Campus-wide, food will need to meet standards that are more nutritious because we know a lot of kids spend their lunch money in vending machines.

“It was a bipartisan bill and is paid for. I feel proud that we were able to do something that was not only good for our kids but, hopefully, reassure the American people that when we set our minds to something — in a bipartisan way, while working with industry and in a fiscally responsible manner — that we can get things done.”

On the legislative journey the $1.5 billion agriculture disaster legislation has taken…

“For Southern farmers who have suffered disasters — and it’s not just in Arkansas but Mississippi, Louisiana, Missouri, Texas, Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee — the SURE program hasn’t always worked. Many of us had reservations about SURE during the (last) farm bill debate.

“I was willing to work with my colleagues from the Midwest with the understanding that we’d see if SURE worked for all. If it did, great, but if not, we would need to find a (new) way.

“The South farms differently. We farm capital-intensive crops. In Arkansas, farmers saw floods in 2008, floods in the spring of 2009 and disastrous floods that fall as people were trying to get crops harvested. I saw crops that were underwater for seven to 10 days — (that meant dockage) at the elevator or gin.

“So, we’ve worked hard to get a disaster package done. I worked with (Mississippi) Sen. Cochran last November to introduce a bill before Christmas. We got it through committee and to the flood as quickly as we could.

“I had it in the (recent) small business bill package. (Nevada Sen. Harry Reid), the Democratic majority leader, had agreed to that. I told him ‘this is our small business. Our farms are small businesses…’

“Our small businesses and rural communities in the South are dependent on agriculture. Whether it’s the seed dealers or fertilizer dealers, the car or implement dealers, the well-drilling companies or the gins — all are tied to agriculture. If the farms are experiencing disaster, so are the surrounding communities.

“I felt the small business bill was entirely appropriate for the disaster package. But there were objections from the Republicans. (Reid) came to me and said ‘(the Republicans) will hold the bill up over this.’

“I said ‘Well, if we can figure out another way, I’ll be glad to do it.’

“We worked with the White House and got the assurance … (that disaster assistance would be forthcoming). It’s completely doable and I’m confident it will happen — they’ve given me their word and seen it in writing.

“We’ve done this 19 or 20 times in the last decade. The USDA has used a couple of mechanisms to get agricultural disaster aid in need. There’s a precedent and I’m confident.

“This is necessary. I’ve got farmers who sometimes take out anywhere from a $3 million to $5million operating loan with the expectation that, at the end of the day, they’ll clear $60,000. That’s a tough risk and the country needs to understand it — if they don’t like importing oil, they’ll really dislike importing food.”

Any movement on the catfish inspection rules? Did Ambassador Kirk have anything to say during the trade hearing?

“I submitted that question (to Kirk) in writing because I wanted (an answer in ink). We have not received an answer yet. Our hope is it will help the USDA to move ahead with the rule.

“I know we’re getting pushback from folks on it. But catfish inspection is a health and safety issue.”

For more, see Dangers of too few catfish inspections

Can you explain where the ($1.5 billion) Pigford settlement funding stands? Secondly, does the reluctance of Congress to fund this have anything to do with the cases (against USDA) from other ethnicities and women?

“I don’t think so, at all.

“The Pigford case has been settled. The government settled and we just need to pay it and make sure it happens. This is the sixth time that we’ve asked … to get it done and it’s been objected to.

“Republicans are objecting but other Republicans support it. (Iowa Senator) Chuck Grassley came down yesterday and spoke with us about this.

“If we can file cloture on it, we could move it. I’ve encouraged (Reid) to do that—just file cloture.”

For more on Pigford, see http://deltafarmpress.com/searchresults/?ord=d&terms=Pigford

Anything else?

“I’m very pleased about the nutrition (legislation). It’s an important tool for the country to improve the lives of our kids…

“As for the disaster assistance, it is critical for Americans to know and understand that this nation produces the safest, most abundant, most affordable supply of food and fiber in the world. Our producers do it with greater respect to the environment than anyone else. If we put them out of business, not only will we become dependent on imported food but we’ll see foods grown in ways that aren’t respectful to the environment.

“I don’t think that people understand that with the unbelievable variables agriculture is up against — from trade negotiations and lack of predictability, lack of predictability from natural disasters. Our producers are easily put at a disadvantage in this global economy. If they can’t compete, they’ll do something else. Farmers have to feed their families too…”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com