Charlie Stenholm remains a powerful voice in Washington. Some six months after he lost his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives he continues to stump for the benefit of U.S. farmers, now as an agricultural consultant with a Washington D.C. law firm.

In that capacity he recently addressed a group of old friends, members of the Texas Cotton Association, at their annual meeting in Austin.

Stenholm said the U.S. agricultural industry faces significant challenges, both from legislators at home who would cut deeply into farm program budgets, and from international trade competitors who would dismantle U.S. farm programs that have helped keep producers viable for decades.

He says the recent WTO panel ruling in favor of Brazil’s claim that the U.S. cotton program unfairly undermined that country’s ability to compete in the international market made little sense.

“When Larry Combest (former U.S. House member and chairman of the House Ag Committee) and I put together the 2002 farm bill, we dealt with the problems of agricultural trade (in a way that was) permissible with the WTO and legal under WTO. It met the criteria for trade.”

He said he and Combest worked for two years to craft a farm program that adhered to the dictates of the last trade round agreements. He said he has little sympathy for a Brazilian farmer with 250,000 acres claiming to be part of a developing agricultural economy.

Stenholm said he “used to believe in free trade,” but has come to the conclusion that countries will always be involved with trade and with agricultural trade issues. “Those who believe that government should get out of our (agriculture’s) business are impractical,” he says. “If our government is not willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with our producers we have to be prepared to lose industry to governments who will stand with their producers to protect their industries.”

He said the cotton industry could lose the Step-2 program under the recent WTO panel ruling.

U.S. farmers face threats from home, as well. Stenholm said. The last U.S. farm bill came through a bi-partisan effort that focused on compromise and “bridge-building.” He said that kind of consensus no longer exists in the U.S. Congress. “I see the worst political environment in Congress I’ve seen over the past 26 years,” he said. “There is no bridge-building across the aisles. There seems to be no trust in D.C. today.”

Stenholm said agricultural region representatives in the past were able to count on bi-partisan support to craft legislation that was good for farmers and good for the country. “We have 285 million people in the country,” he said. “We have less than 2 million farmers. We are not a major political power block, but in the past we were able to take those minority numbers and turn them into a majority.” That was because of cooperation across party lines.

And those programs helped more than farmers, he said.

“Those 285 million people are all involved in agriculture because they all eat,” he said. But he’s concerned that farm state legislators will find tough going to convince urban counterparts to fund agricultural programs. “Without Chambliss (Saxby of Georgia) and Cochran (Thad of Mississippi) the recent budget cuts would have been worse than they are,” he said.

He said growers must continue to support their own associations through various check-off programs.

“If we are not willing to help ourselves it will be hard to convince Congress to provide assistance.”

Stenholm said current administration economic policies threaten the stability and future of U.S. industries, including agriculture. “I don’t believe the current economic game plan that creates the largest deficit in history can be good for the economy,” he said. “It will hurt agriculture and cotton. I don’t think this level of debt is sustainable and economists don’t think so either. Alan Greenspan said recently that the deficit is a problem and we had better deal with it.”

Stenholm said part of the urgency for dealing with the growing national debt is that China and Japan hold a large number of U.S. loans.

Stenholm said TCA and other cotton associations face significant challenges as legislators begin looking at a 2007 farm bill. “Participate politically. A big priority is to get all agricultural organizations involved,” he said. “Think outside the box. Never forget history; learn from it and don’t repeat mistakes.”

e-mail: rsmith@primediabusiness.com