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.”

Immigration reform

He said a comprehensive solution to immigration reform is desperately needed. “Currently, some 70 percent of the agricultural work force is undocumented.”

He said if we put a fence across our southern border we may prevent more illegal immigrants from coming in “but we also fence in 12 million who are already here. Do we round them all up and deport them?”

He said a better option is to begin a system to include identification papers—passports, counterfeit proof driver’s licenses or green cards—for immigrants “who are here to work. Then give them an opportunity to get in line for citizenship or to make arrangements to go home at some point.”

He said he’s never understood why everyone does not carry official identification papers.

He said a true North American Free Trade Agreement would create a powerful trading block. “Currently, Mexico would be the challenge. It is nearly lawless. But (with a true NAFTA) we would be energy self-sufficient and would provide enough jobs for everyone.”

Horse slaughter

Stenholm also touched on what he admitted is a controversial issue—horse slaughter for human consumption.

“We have 250,000 unwanted horses in the United States. If something is not done we will see a downsizing of the horse industry.”

Stenholm says prohibition against horse slaughter, and exporting to countries where horsemeat is not taboo, limits hose owners’ property rights.

He said water will become a bigger issue in the United States in coming years than energy.

He also commented on the bipartisan atmosphere in the U.S. congress. “It’s the worst I’ve ever seen,” he said. “We have polarization on the far right and the far left and no chance of compromise. Most of the American people live in the sensible center.”

He said the answer is “common sense and education.”

That’s what he tries to provide in his new role.

rsmith@farmpress.com