As a U.S. Congressman Charlie Stenholm never dodged controversial issues but typically found ways to bring disparate factions together to turn dissent into compromise.

As senior policy advisor with Olsson Frank Weeda, Stenholm is using those same skills to work, sometimes behind the scenes, to bring folks on the right and folks on the left to a place he refers to as “the sensible center,” a political platform he said holds from 60 percent to 70 percent of the American people.

Stenholm discussed that theory and a far-ranging list of other topics yesterday at the Big Country Wheat Conference in Abilene, Texas.

He refers to himself as “an educator” but adds in a low voice that he’s really a “lobbyist,” who uses his experience as a long-time Congressman from Texas who served on committees ranging from agriculture, to energy to Social Security, to help current legislators understand issues that affect farmers, ranchers, and American citizens.

Budget based farm bill

He said recent House Agriculture Committee hearings may have been criticized as occurring too soon and before the 2008 farm bill was fully implemented. It was the right thing to do, he said “because the budget will have more to do with what we do in agriculture than ever before. It’s essential to lock in a baseline and look carefully at what agriculture needs for the future.”

He said some critics of farm policy say the government should get out of agriculture. “That will not happen.” He said U.S. agriculture has become too dependent on international markets for the government to ease out of policy.

Stenholm said Congress will have to deal with a burgeoning budget deficit and said the solution will include both reducing spending and raising revenue. “The farm bill will have to adjust to those changing (economic) conditions.”

He said raising taxes will be necessary but in a way that poses “the least harm possible to the economy.”

Recent cuts in crop insurance funding could be detrimental to farmers and ranchers, Stenholm said. “I just hope it’s not as bad as some folks say it will be. I know crop insurance is important to agriculture. Farmers have to have an opportunity to insure against catastrophic loss and this will be an emphasis for the ag committee as they consider what they need to replace.”

He said Congress is likely to provide farmers “with a base of support but not profitable support.”

Fewer farmers

One of the big challenges facing agriculture is the diminishing number of farmers. “We have only 121,000 farmers producing 75 percent of all agricultural production in the United States. That number is not politically significant. But we still have the most abundant, safest food supply in the world.”

He says energy will be a crucial issue for years to come and that oil and gas will continue to be the primary source to meet our energy needs.

“We need to develop all our supplemental energy sources,” Stenholm said. “That includes solar, wind, biofuel and nuclear. But drilling will remain important.”