Early in his tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives, Larry Combest recalls hearing businessmen in small rural towns in his West Texas district complain about the cost of farm programs.

“They didn’t understand that those farmers were their customers,” he said recently at the Plains Cotton Growers annual meeting at Lubbock.

For years, Combest represented farm interests in Congress, and in retirement he continues to do so.

Currently, he’s spearheading development of the Southwest Council on Agriculture, an organization of more than 50 businesses across the Southwest that is evolving into a vehicle to tell agriculture’s story to legislators and other local, state, and national leaders.

“We have 435 members in the U.S. House of Representatives, and 100 senators” Combest said. “A smaller fraction of those legislators are now telling agriculture’s story. We have no national spokesperson for agriculture, no one representing the importance of agriculture throughout the country.”

Combest hopes the Southwest Council will help to fill the void. Currently, all major Southwest commodities support the council, and members have signed on from South Texas all the way into Kansas, including, “both agriculture and non-agriculture interests.

“We have auto dealers, lenders, and rural electric cooperatives among our membership. We hope to make those making policy aware of the important role agriculture plays, not only in the farm economy but to the overall economy. Agriculture affects everyone and influences the economy many times over.”

Combest said the initial objective for the council was to operate for a year, through passage of a new farm law, “and then see what we need for the future.”

The future may include taking a consistent message to state and national leaders.

He recalled that prior to development of the 2002 farm legislation, a contingent from the Lubbock Chamber of Commerce traveled to Washington to represent the area’s economic interests.

“Passage of the farm bill was their number one priority,” Combest said.

He noted that leaders in the Lubbock area had pushed hard to save Reese Air Force Base. “They made a big effort to keep it. The economic impact was significant. But it was a fraction of what agriculture provides for the area — not just for farmers, but for everyone.

“Elected officials make choices In some cases, interests of budget hawks conflict with the interests of funding farm programs.

“We have to continue to show how important agriculture is to the economy. If the ag economy is not good, other sectors won’t be good either. We want to see the Southwest Council grow throughout the area and help promote agriculture. We want to show how significant agriculture is and help people who don’t understand to recognize how essential agriculture is to their survival.”

That includes small businesses in rural towns, Combest said.

He recognized Plains Cotton Growers for leading the charge on establishing the council. “I take my hat off to them — they stepped up and committed to help fund this program for the first year.”

email: rsmith@farmpress.com