American rice producers recently had an opportunity to state their case to the House Agriculture Committee in Washington. On March 21 two rice farmers β€” John Denison and Nolen Canon β€” went before the committee with testimony supported by both the U.S. Rice Producers' Group and the U.S. Rice Producers Association. The testimony also was endorsed by the USA Rice Federation and the Rice Millers' Association, so effectively, the entire industry spoke as one voice.

It was an important show of unity and common purpose at a time when we need solidarity.

The House Agriculture Committee is gathering information for the purpose of creating a new farm bill, one that will replace the farm bill of 1996. For rice farmers, the stakes couldn't be higher.

The testimony covered a number of important issues, but perhaps the most important point it made was in the introduction. Here's an excerpt:

β€œIn short, if Congress does not provide rice producers with further immediate assistance, consideration of any long-term farm policy will in all likelihood be unnecessary for many rice farmers who may be forced out of business before the new farm policy can take effect.”

Rice farmers cannot state our situation any more clearly than that. The drafting of a new farm bill is important, but America's rice growers need immediate assistance if the industry is to survive for the long term. If our government fails to provide the safety net we need, many rice farmers will lose the fight and go out of business this year. And rice farmers won't be the only losers; the American consumer stands to lose as well.

If rice farmers go out of business in large numbers, the rice producing and processing infrastructure will eventually crumble as well. That means an enormous loss of jobs and a deeper depression of rural economies. Without domestic rice production and processing we will be totally dependent on foreign producers. Foreign growers and millers typically are not regulated as closely as their American counterparts. American consumers will likely end up paying more with no guarantee of quality and purity. We grow the highest quality rice right here at home and we must keep it available for American grocery baskets.

America's rice growers have been hit with the double-whammy of the lowest commodity prices in nearly a decade coupled with extremely high energy and fertilizer costs. This creates a negative cash flow situation that frightens the lending community and makes it difficult to obtain farm loans. Without the immediate support of the federal government, many rice farmers will not be able to plant a crop this year. The death spiral of America's rice industry will have begun.

The White House, Congress and taxpayers must keep in mind that we are in danger of losing the capacity to produce an important food commodity. Once gone, it will be nearly impossible to bring it back.

USA Rice Federation is working hard to make sure the administration and Congress understand what is at stake. We encourage every member of the rice industry to get involved by contacting the White House as well as your congressional representatives and urging them to support America's rice farmers.

Gary Sebree is chairman of the U.S. Rice Producers' Group.