“There have been a number of events that have happened to Sharon and me in the last year that have made us realize how fragile life and health are,” Combest said in a prepared statement.

“They certainly caused us to rearrange our priorities, and we want to spend as much time together while we have our life and health. In order for us to be able to spend that time together, I will submit my resignation from Congress effective on May 31, 2003.”

Combest said the May resignation will provide ample time for individuals interested in running for the office to prepare for a special election. Combest is expected to relinquish his chairmanship in December, paving the way for a new chairman to be seated at the beginning of the new Congress.

He has served on the Agriculture Committee his entire career and has chaired the committee since 1999.

“Through 10 elections, the people of the 19th Congressional District have been very kind to us and words cannot express our appreciation for the confidence they have shown in us,” Combest said. “We have so many wonderful friends and are looking forward to being at home in Lubbock to enjoy their friendship even more.”

The agricultural community reacted with a mixture of disappointment and support for the Texas congressman.

“I am sorry to hear of Chairman Combest’s plans to leave Congress,” said Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman. “He has provided strong, effective leadership on agricultural and trade issues as chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. His dedicated service in Congress has benefited the nation’s farmers and ranchers.

“I wish Chairman Combest and his wife Sharon all the best as they move back to Texas, and look forward to working with him throughout his remaining time in Congress.”

“Larry Combest has been a statesman and a tireless advocate for agriculture during his service in Congress,” said Texas Farm Bureau president Donald Patman. “He will be missed by his constituents in the 19th District and by farmers and ranchers all over the state.

“Larry’s leadership in agriculture reached far beyond his own district, touching the lives of farm and ranch families everywhere. His leadership during the debate on the 2002 farm bill was indispensable, and he deserves much credit for its passage. This legislation will stand as a large part of his legacy.

“We have been very fortunate to have someone with Larry’s talent and abilities to serve agriculture for so long,” said Jerry Harris, a Lamesa, Texas ginner and chairman of the Texas FSA committee.

“The state, the nation and the world will miss him,” Harris said. “We can’t lose someone with the respect that Larry Combest commands without leaving a huge vacuum. It’s a big hole and the nation will suffer because of his absence.”

Harris said Combest accomplished more than representing his district and state “He spent a lot of his time educating his colleagues, both in the Senate and the House, about agriculture,” Harris said. “He articulated the need for a viable agriculture.”

Harris said the relationship between Combest and Charlie Stenholm, a fellow Texan who is the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee, proved invaluable in pushing the 2002 farm bill through Congress.

“To say Larry Combest will be missed is like saying an atomic bomb makes a little noise,” he said.

American Cotton Producers Chairman Mark Williams of Farwell, Texas, who also farms in Combest’s district, said, “I believe Rep. Combest has a unique grasp and understanding of the difficulties facing farmers today. He used that knowledge to develop and deliver effective farm policy that addresses the primary needs of agriculture for the short- and long-term.

“ While developing national agricultural policy, he never failed to put the highest priority on effectively serving the needs of all of agriculture and especially those of Southern agriculture.

“He also expanded agricultural research programs, played an active role in trade policy development seeking to open markets to U.S. agricultural exports and significantly expanded conservation programs in the 2002 farm bill. He has made an enormous difference in the well-being of rural Americans as well as for farmers, ranchers and consumers.”

“Agriculture has benefited greatly from Rep. Combest’s dedication, commitment and leadership as chairman of the Agriculture Committee,” said National Cotton Council Chairman Kenneth B. Hood of Gunnison, Miss. “His integrity, leadership skills, depth and breadth of knowledge about agricultural policy in general and cotton industry issues specifically will be evident for years to come.

“Rep. Combest has set a lofty standard, particularly in striking a bipartisan balance that serves all interests of the industry.”

Hood said that was never more evident than when . Combest, with the cooperation of Stenholm, guided new farm legislation through the House, the conference committee and to the president’s desk, capping an effort that began in 2000 with a series of nationwide policy input hearings.

e-mail:rsmith@primediabusiness.com