The peanut title of the Food Security and Rural Development Act of 2002, i.e., the farm bill, might seem like getting underwear for your birthday. It's not exactly what farmers wanted, but it's useful and about as good as they could hope for.
There were too many forces lined up against continuation of a quota system, says Alabama Congressman Terry Everett, a Republican member of the House Agriculture Committee. Everett and Georgia Democratic Senator Zell Miller were honored during the Southern Peanut Farmers Federation's annual meeting recently in Panama City, Fla., for their efforts to preserve the peanut industry. Everett, along with Miller's agricultural assistant West Higginbothom, kicked off the conference with a Washington update.
“It's been an interesting year,” Everett said. “We had to decide whether to save the industry or allow it to go down the tubes. I said at this conference last year that the quota system could not survive.
“We barely saved it in 1996.”
Everett said the program attracted too many critics, including members of Congress and, especially, the press. “The press has voiced strong opposition to a quota system, and that's not going to change,” he said. “The press does not understand agriculture.”
Everett said a quote he included in a press release referring to agriculture as crucial to national security was picked up by several bastions of journalism, including the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times. After several revisions, a reporter quoted Everett as stating the peanut title of the farm bill was crucial “to fight terrorism.”
He said it reminded him of the gossip game children play, where they sit in a ring and each child whispers something to the person beside him and all are amazed at how the message mutates into something completely different by the time it gets around the circle.
“That's the way it works in the press sometimes,” Everett, a onetime reporter and longtime newspaper owner and publisher, said.
Even with the obvious fault, no quota system, Everett said the program is sound. “We have a good farm bill and the peanut program is better than I predicted in 2001. We have a $495 per ton target price and more money for a quota buyout than I expected. Not everyone is happy with the buyout, but there was no other way.”
He said lowered tariffs, as mandated by NAFTA, would have rendered U.S. peanut farmers non-competitive.
“Peanuts are too important to Southern agriculture to let that happen. We had to preserve the industry. We got a lot of criticism, but at the end of the day, we did what we had to do to preserve the peanut industry, and I think we cobbled together a program that provides an opportunity for profit. I'm tired of producers apologizing for trying to make a profit.”
He praised Miller for his role in holding onto the funds in the Senate.
Higginbothom said farmers now should turn their attention to holding onto those funds as appropriations committees try to accomplish what the Grassley-Dorgan Amendment failed to do.
“We have a rocky road ahead,” he said. “Payment limitations will come up and likely will pass through committees. We need help to dispel some of the misconceptions rampant about payment limitations.
“For instance, it's not true that taking money from one group of farmers will benefit another group. They'll all hurt. Also, it's untrue that all farmers are rich. In fact, without government payments the past few years a lot of farmers would be out of business.”
He said proponents of payment limitations believe that a low payment cap will reverse the trend of aging farmers. “The average age of our farmers is more than 50 years old,” he said. “Payment limitations will not help that.”
Higginbothom said the farm bill is a good piece of legislation. “The peanut title also is a positive and a program that will lead the industry into the future.”
He said the focus for the next few weeks will be on the USDA and the Farm Services Agency as they write the regulations that will guide the new farm legislation.
“They must go carefully and develop good policy,” he said. “They are breaking new ground.”
Bob Redding, who represents peanut interests in Washington, said the farm bill “was late and pushed USDA into a precarious position to develop regulations. They are working diligently, around the clock, to meet deadlines.
“Consequently, we have to be patient, and when growers find problems with regulations, they should tell USDA what's wrong and get them to fix it in 2003. This cannot become a public forum about how bad this program is.”
He said time constraints do not allow a 90-day public comment period. “We'll have to fix problems in 2003.”
Redding said officials consistently stuck to two themes in meetings with USDA as they began developing rules and regulations for the new farm program: “Protect producers and protect government money. And producers are the number one concern.”
All three speakers urged farmers and other industry spokespersons to stay in touch with legislators and USDA as regulations become public and as Congress debates appropriations and changes in the law. Redding said farmers should point out that quick changes in the law would be grossly unfair to the industry.
“Also, counter the Environmental Working Groups' continued criticism of the farm legislation by reminding legislators and the media that the 38 percent of farm families they always isolate as receiving the bulk of government payments produce 92 percent of the country's food and fiber.”
Adding to economic woes has been environmental trouble.
“In any given year, 15 percent of the country's agricultural production is exposed to drought,” Redding said. “This year, 40 percent is exposed. We need to get disaster aid for both 2001 and the 2002 crops.”
He said the past five years have brought tough times to farmsteads with low prices and high production costs.
“And remind legislators that agriculture is a key contributor to the gross national product.”
“Payment limits plus low prices plus high production costs equals trouble,' Higginbothom said.