Ronnie Hopper, president of Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., fears American consumers may not appreciate the abundance of food and fiber at their fingertips until some of them get hungry.
“The U.S. consumer has never been without,” Hopper said in his address to the PCG annual meeting recently in Lubbock. “I hope the U.S. food system does not take the same course that oil did in the 1970s.”
The problem starts higher up the chain of command than consumers, however. “We have legislative leaders who do not consider food and fiber production critical to the well-being of the nation” he said. “They simply take it for granted that it will be there.”
Hopper said “consumer ignorance” and legislators' disdain, pose significant challenges to west Texas agriculture and the rural economy. “Often the Washington current moves against us,” he said. “When we swim with the current, the going is easy and we make good progress, but going upstream takes a lot more effort.”
He said the strong dollar has increased the flow to near flood stage. “A strong dollar may be good for consumers, in the short run,” he said, “but it's devastating to farmers. About 5 percent of our budget goes for living expenses.
“And for that percentage we're just like other consumers. But for the other 95 percent, we buy U.S. goods for our farm budget and we're at a disadvantage because of a strong currency. That robust dollar also puts us at a disadvantage in foreign trade.”
Hopper said U.S. trade representatives must understand the “unintentional consequences to farmers that occur with some of their programs.”
He said the middle class built this country and remains the backbone of the economy. “But a middle class does not exist in most countries. The thinking in government assumes that building a middle class in developing countries will be good for trade.
“The problem with that comes from the type of industry they develop, usually fiber and textiles. Consequently, the world no longer needs the U.S. textile industry. We're giving away our textile manufacturing capacity to developing nations.”
He said Pakistan asked for a trade concession in exchange for cooperation with the Afghanistan invasion. “They wanted to export more textiles into the United States. Unfortunately, American cotton farmers bear a big chunk of those concessions. We want to do our part, but a big bite comes out of our hides.”
He said leaders who do not see food and fiber as vital to the nation's well being consider the service industry the country's basic wealth resource.
“And environmentalists tell only part of the story (criticizing farmers for overusing crop protection materials and fertilizers) but a half truth doesn't tell the whole story.”
He urged agricultural leaders to devise better ways to communicate with government and consumers. “We have to find better ways of informing the public of the advantages of a strong agriculture. We have to do more than whine in public. We have to work harder and smarter with consumers and legislators.
“We can't have what we want unless we can show that there's something in it for consumers. And there is.”