Louisiana farmers aired their concerns at a recent Farm Day Forum called by Congressmen Charles Boustany of Lafayette and Charles Melancon of Napoleonville in preparation for the upcoming debate on the 2007 farm bill.
Mark Keenum, USDA undersecretary, told the gathering of more than 200 people in Rayne, La., that President Bush's proposed farm bill would continue the basics of the 2002 farm bill. Overall, said Keenum, cotton and soybean farmers will get the same amount of assistance, while rice farmers won't lose or gain much.
Paul Coreil, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for extension, said he heard encouraging news at the event, even though some farm programs will be reduced.
“The positive news expressed at the forum centered on opportunities for the production of energy crops in Louisiana,” Coreil said. “The nation is committed to reducing its dependence on foreign oil, and the production of energy crops that can be processed into alternative fuels, such as ethanol and biodiesel, clearly has great potential for Louisiana agriculture in the years ahead.
“The next farm bill is poised to provide increased incentives that will help farmers further develop energy-based markets for the crops they grow.”
Keenum said demand for corn as a feedstock for ethanol production in the Midwest has created a modern “gold rush” that could require Iowa to import corn this year.
Passage of a new federal farm bill that will help U.S. agricultural interests will be a difficult challenge in Congress because of changing demographics, Washington, D.C., lobbyist Tyson Redpath told the gathering. He warned farmers that federal funding for agricultural research is inadequate.
“Our investment in agricultural research is pathetic,” he said.
Redpath said USDA spending for research in 2006 was $2.3 billion, compared to $28 billion for the National Institutes of Health. In the past 20 years, he said, agricultural research spending has only increased by 1 percent annually, compared to 5 percent for the NIH.
Redpath also said other countries are spending considerably more for research in agriculture and stressed that could put the United States at a tremendous disadvantage.
“If we don't improve our funding for research, we cannot be the low-cost growers we are today,” he said.
Those comments were welcome words for David Boethel, LSU AgCenter vice chancellor for research, who attended the forum. “I was pleased to have the issue of funding for agricultural research and extension being discussed at a forum on the farm bill,” Boethel said. “As Mr. Redpath stated, this funding is critical to allowing U.S. producers to remain competitive.
“It is important to have new technology to sustain agriculture, and development of new technology is dependent on adequate funding.”
Farmer Clarence Berken of Lake Arthur, La., commended Melancon, a Democrat, and Boustany, a Republican, for working together, despite their political differences, and Coreil said the cooperation is a positive sign.
“It was very encouraging to see two congressmen from different political parties co-hosting a farm bill input forum in Louisiana,” Coreil said. “The farmers in attendance were very appreciative of this bipartisan outreach initiative coordinated by Congressmen Melancon and Boustany.”
Rice farmer Jackie Loewer of Branch, La., told the congressmen Louisiana rice farmers want several items addressed in the new farm policy, including retention of the three-entity rule, setting counter-cyclical payments on a regional basis, transparent formulation of the world price by the USDA and no reduction in payment limitations.
Boustany said those all are important concerns that he has been hearing from farmers across his district. Other members of Congress need to be informed of those concerns, he said, adding, “We're going to need your help.”
Bob Odom, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Agriculture and Forestry, said the farm bill is aimed more for consumers than farmers to ensure a cheap, abundant food supply.
Farmer Lynn Landry of Mermentau, La., said food is cheap, but producing it is becoming more expensive.
Rice farmer Brian Wild of Welsh, La., urged the congressmen to continue working to get restrictions lifted for travel to Cuba. He said Cubans are willing to buy American rice, but they want U.S. travel restrictions eased.
Boustany said he favors expanding trade with Cuba, and Melancon said trade barriers are hurting the Cuban people, not the Castro administration.
Rice miller Charles Trahan of Crowley, La., said the United States should use the same political approach towards Cuba that it uses with other communists countries such as China and Vietnam. “Why is Castro so important?” Trahan asked.
Boustany said he thought the trade restrictions could be overcome with recent legislation, but the measures failed. The efforts will be continued, he said.
Trahan also complained that many countries place restrictions on U.S. food products, but no restrictions are imposed by the United States on imported food, and both congressmen agreed that inequity needs to be changed.