The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 should provide a shelter for battle-worn farmers, hammered in recent years by low prices, poor crop yields and constant criticism from media, urban legislators and foreign competitors.

Now that the shelter is built, all farm interests have to do is defend it from the same critics who tried to deny them protection in the first place.

Having something to defend represents at least a partial victory.

“I'd rather defend the farm legislation we have than to explain not getting it to our growers,” said Mark Lange, vice president-policy analysis and program coordinator, National Cotton Council of America.

Lange offered his perspective on challenges to the recently passed farm law and other issues facing cotton producers during the Plains Ginners Association annual meeting recently in Lubbock.

“We get criticism from the European Union,” Lange said. “They have no real credence. Our real challenge is to make certain that folks with an agenda are not successful” in efforts to gut the farm laws.

Of immediate concern, he said, is disaster assistance for both the 2001 and the 2002 crops.

“NCC advocates a disaster program,” he said, “but it is imperative that funding not come out of the new farm legislation.”

A questionable economy makes additional funding problematic. “In a year's time, we (the U. S. Government) have moved from a budget surplus to a deficit. That's an issue we'll have to face.”

He said rising prices for grains may provide some leeway. “The farm bill was scored in March (as to cost of programs) and was based on March prices.”

With higher prices, expenses are likely to be lower. “Perhaps we can capture some of that savings to pay for disaster assistance. It's possible; we've done it in the past.”

Even if agricultural interests maintain current farm law funding, Lange said implementation of the act will take some time.

“Please be patient,” he said. “Farm Services Agency personnel face a tremendous workload. It will take a while to program data into the system, especially as farmers alter acreage bases to comply with new programs.”

Lange predicts the details will not be worked out until this fall. “It will be late October before FSA figures yields and can make a first payment, 35 percent of the total due.”

Lange said with the Texas Cooperative Extension Service handling much of the education aspect of new programs, FSA focuses on implementation. “That makes the system work much better,” he said.

Conservation titles in the new law also offer potential for increased cash flow but come with challenges. Lange said much of the conservation data came from the Midwest, leaving questions about how cotton farmers would benefit.

“The Council has been working to make sure cotton farmers are eligible for conservation programs,” he said. “We've brought FSA into cotton production areas to show them how these programs work for us.”

“We want to make certain these programs will work in the Texas High Plains,” said Mark Williams, president of Plains Cotton Growers and chairman of the American Cotton Producers.

“When we get final regulations, we hope they will adapt to our region. We had legislators out here for a visit to acquaint them with the challenges we face with wind and arid conditions.”

Lange said the Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) passed last month should improve business for U.S. textiles.” It will change the way textile trade pacts are administered,” he said.

He said a “significant expansion from the Angola Trade Pact, should include a requirement after 2004 that expansion be with U.S. cotton. “Enforcement will be difficult,” he said.

He also said China has not acted in good faith to live up to their WTO agreements. And it's not just with cotton. “Other commodities have similar problems.”

Agricultural interests hope the TPA can eliminate some of these trade barriers.

“We've had concerns with agricultural trade,” Lange said. “With cotton, in trade negotiations, it's always been a matter of minimizing the damage, not maximizing gains. Debates always focus on grains and do not benefit cotton. We have hope now that we may get some meaningful gains.”

Agricultural trade interests also have expressed concern about efforts to “ratchet down” support to comply with trade agreements. “We have no limits on direct payments to growers and no limits on payments for conservation,” Lange said. “The loan may be considered trade distorting, however. We expect to see a ratcheting down only of trade distorting programs.”

Lange said other issues facing the cotton industry include the Food Quality Protection Act (FQPA), which could remove more organophosphate pesticides from the market, and flammability issues, especially with children's clothing.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com