Ronnie Hopper wants everyone to know how important agriculture is to West Texas.

Hopper raises wheat, grain sorghum, cotton and beef cattle on his 3,000-acre operation at Petersburg, Texas, on the High Plains with the help of three full-time employees and three seasonal workers. He wants to help Americans, especially lawmakers, gain a better understanding of 21st century American farmers.

The lifelong Hale County resident and multi-crop farmer said agriculture has been a keystone for the economic development of West Texas for more than 50 years. He emphasized that and row crop production, principally cotton, will make it an important agricultural area for years to come.

He has another message for lawmakers: “I believe the American food and fiber industry is the greatest of any nation on earth at any time in history. But our ability to produce this food and fiber did not develop overnight. It requires significant, long-term investments in technology and infrastructure. Thoughtful farm policy has made those investments possible, particularly in the case of individual producers like me. I still believe our agricultural sector is critical and that we should be self sufficient in food and fiber production.”

National Cotton Council economists say West Texas farmers work hard to increase efficiency while conserving precious resources — but in a global economy, wide-swings in commodity prices are beyond even the control of even the most sophisticated farmers' control and can threaten the viability of farms built on long-term investment.

“The 2002 farm law, crafted by then Chairman Larry Combest and signed by President Bush, is important to all the producers I know in West Texas,” Hopper said. “It provides a safety net against wide price swings. It gives us an opportunity to weather short-term disruptions in commodity markets.” It has also been a bargain for taxpayers costing far less than congressional budget experts predicted by replacing unpredictable, ad hoc programs with assistance that triggers only when prices are extraordinarily low.”

No benefits change

Hopper said provisions in the farm law that further limit payments and establish strict rules to qualify for benefits should not be changed during the life of the current law.

“It is critical that our farm policy be predictable and consistent since I make many of my land utilization and equipment purchase decisions on a long-term basis,” he said. He also explained that because commodity prices are very cyclical, his diversified crop approach gives him a much-needed risk management tool.

Fortunately, the NCC notes, the current farm law includes provisions that encourage Hopper and other farmers to employ cropping flexibility, which allows them to base planting decisions on market signals and to employ crop rotations consistent with good conservation practices. The legislation also includes important conservation provisions that encourage producers to participate in voluntary, cost-share programs.

“Anyone who has lived in West Texas for any period of time has certainly noticed the improvements we have made in reducing soil erosion and improving air quality,” Hopper said.”

Curtis Griffith, board chairman of City Bank in Lubbock, agrees with Hopper on the importance of a consistent farm policy. He said the 2002 farm law has provided farmers more cropping flexibility than they've had for some time and allowed them to weather a period of extremely low world prices, particularly for cotton.

He also points out that farm policy, though, is not just about crop production and conservation. The farm law also “authorizes many of the nutrition programs that help our less fortunate citizens have access to nutritious food for themselves and their children.”

He said the 2002 farm law has provided farmers more cropping flexibility than they've had for some time and allowed them to weather a period of extremely low world prices, particularly for cotton.

Safety net critical

Griffith said having a stable, dependable farm law in place is extremely important for suppliers and service firms, including his bank.

“You have to understand, we have to forecast the potential cash flow, the economic strength of our farm borrowers for months out in advance,” Griffith said. “We simply can't take the type of risk we have to deal with in today's economic environment if there is no safety net in place to help protect long-term capital investments from short-term market fluctuations beyond the farmer's control.”

Griffith said it is agriculture's dollar that drives the West Texas economy, including the many businesses headquartered in Lubbock that depend on the farmer's profitability.

“I think we can safely say that as many as 40 percent to 50 percent of our bank's loans would have potential problems without the existence of a viable agriculture,” the bank executive said. “Conversely, when we have some good crop years and strong prices to go along with it then a lot of new vehicles get sold, a lot of new houses get built. The benefits are felt throughout our entire economy.”

John Zwiacher, owner of Scoggin-Dickey Chevrolet/Buick dealership in Lubbock, said agriculture's impact on his business is dramatic.

“I would say 30 percent to 40 percent of our business is directly related to agriculture,” said Zwaicher, who has 150 employees in Lubbock and another 20 in a Plainview location.

He also knows what happens when farm income declines, like in 2003.

“Our new vehicle sales since September are down somewhere between 10-14 percent,” he said. “Our parts and services business has increased because people are repairing their equipment and vehicles, particularly if they are farm-related, and not buying new.”