Saying work on a new farm bill is poised to take a backseat in the legislative process, Texas Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, is speaking out in support of bipartisan cooperation to address the needs of agriculture and warns failure to take up long-term ag reform this year needs to move from the backseat to the front burner.

In a statement released this week, Cuellar says America’s Founding Fathers were farmers who understood the value of producing goods at home rather than relying on imports to sustain the nation and warned failure to move forward with a new farm bill “will leave the engine of the world’s most efficient agriculture industry wavering in the uncertainty of what the future holds.

“The remainder of the 112th Congress is likely to be consumed by the debate of a variety of long-term pieces of legislation, including corporate tax reform, surface transportation funding and debt reduction provisions. Unfortunately, the likelihood of Congress taking up long-term agricultural reform legislation…is less promising,” says Cuellar.

Cuellar’s 28th Congressional District, which runs from New Braunfels and just south of San Antonio west to the Texas-Mexican border and south again to encompass the western half of the Rio Grande Valley, is rich in farm and ranch country.

Why a backseat?

Cuellar says he is uncertain why farm legislation should take a backseat to other major issues this year when bipartisan support for farm legislation four years ago passed with over 300 lawmakers in favor of it. He says U.S. agriculture has shown positive growth during the economic downturn of recent years and believes positive reform now could pave the way for continued growth.

“Agriculture has been the steady force in our recovery. In the midst of one of the worst economic downturns in American history, net farm income in 2010 and 2011 hit record highs. These gains have insulated our communities from further job losses and kept grocery prices low,” he says. “For all the talk about making it in America, American agricultural producers posted a record $44 billion trade surplus in FY 2011. This includes a record $137 billion of U.S. farm exports.”

According to the prepared statement, despite an overall trade deficit with the Chinese of $273 billion in 2010, the United States posted a $14.1 billion agricultural trade surplus with China – further proof of American efficiency competing on an even playing field. Because of the high demand, he says China has now surpassed Canada to become the top American market for agricultural exports in FY 2011.

One bright spot

“Our producers have achieved increased production and sales without the government support most like to claim. Of the 34 member countries in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the United States ranks 31st for government assistance to producers. Less than one-half of one percent of the federal budget currently goes to support producers,” he said.

Cuellar says over 70 percent of farms in Texas “do not receive supports.” But Cuellar also warns that it is time to “face the realities of our budget constraints,” and says the House and Senate Agriculture Committees will likely reduce these numbers further.

Concerning the adminstration’s recent signing of free trade agreement with South Korea, Columbia and Panama, Cuellar says each of the agreements offer different opportunities for American producers, but share a common connection by connecting American producers, the “finest in the world,” with markets otherwise inaccessible.

“One only needs to review our livestock exports in the last 20 years to see the growing influence of American agriculture around the world. Even with the mad cow scare of 2004, which only underscored our need of smart food safety regulations, the share of beef exports have doubled, poultry has tripled and pork has increased more than 10 times,” Cuellar says in the statement.

“Congress must lead on these issues and not kick yet another important piece of legislation like the farm bill down the road. Because of the basic realities of their livelihood, agriculture is unique in how producers must plan in advance how they wish to run their businesses. Pushing our work until it’s politically convenient leaves family farms to guess on the regulations that will govern them down the road. Without a new farm bill, USDA is unable to assist with new difficulties that have arisen since 2008.”

Bipartisan effort

Cuellar says the farm bill has a history of being one of Congress’s most bipartisan products that historically draws support from Democrats and Republicans alike.

“American producers are not asking for a hand-out or bail-out. They are asking us to simply put them in a position to compete and succeed in new markets,” he says.

He says his office is making an attempt to gain support from other legislators to move the new farm legislation reform forward, but admits it may be uphill battle.