We often hear politicians tell their constituents that their voices can make a difference. At times, it seems an empty assurance. But it can happen.

Take for example when U.S. Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., defied conventional political wisdom to help open the Cuban market for the United States in 2000.

According to Emerson, speaking at the Conservation-Tillage Cotton and Rice Conference in Tunica, the market to Cuba rose out of a discussion with Dexter, Mo., rice producer Sonny Martin in which Martin noted that Cuba at one time was the No. 1 export market for U.S. rice.

“I decided to go back and find out as much as I could about it,” Emerson recalled. The following year, Emerson and a contingent of Mid-South rice producers visited Cuba and were successful in opening the market. Today, Cuba continues to purchase rice, poultry and other commodities from the United States.

“Low and behold, today, Sonny's dream is coming true,” Emerson said. “It should show all of you that involvement with members of Congress and state legislators can make a difference. Sonny is a perfect example.”

Challenges facing rural America run the gamut from education to health care, noted Emerson. But the most important point to get across to other Americans is “when the agricultural community is doing well, our grocery stores do well, our hardware stores and implement dealers do well. There is a ripple effect.

“Government has to give agriculture the best possible opportunities to be successful,” she said. “There is nothing that infuriates me more than the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, The New York Times, all these liberal bastions, all of whom think we shouldn't be in Iraq and all of whom think that the bird and bunny people are the greatest thing since sliced bread.

“Then they beat up on you guys, saying we shouldn't be subsidizing our farmers, and giving them special deals.

“What they fail to realize is that the $100 billion that you contributed last year to the U.S. economy is a gigantic portion of our economy. It's the only part of the economy in which we have a trade surplus.”

Free or fair trade has to begin with a level playing field, according to Emerson. “It seems to me when we have 12 percent tariffs versus 62 percent tariffs on average in other countries, then we don't have a very level playing field. The European Union subsidizes its farmers three times as much as we technically subsidize our farmers, and Japan subsidizes its farmers at 600 percent.

“It gets very frustrating to me to see what the newspapers say about agriculture, and they fail to see that you all are really driving our economy. This is a story that we want you to help us tell. It's very important to rural America and it's very important to our economic well being.”

Emerson is hoping that a new energy bill “will provide a lot of incentives for agriculture to not only be used for alternative fuels but to give grants to producers to build an ethanol plant or a soy diesel plant.

“The problem is that we can't get anything through the Senate. It's very, very frustrating. It's our responsibility to do this for you and we have fallen down on the job. I'm hopeful when we go back to session that the Senate's constituents will have spoken to them about the importance of getting this done.”

Those hoping to capitalize on the mad cow disease scare, according to Emerson, may mount new challenges. “I can assure you that in spite of the fact that the agriculture department has worked swiftly and has done a good job of isolating this problem, there are many of my colleagues in Congress who I suspect we will have some real fights over food labeling and mad cow disease.”

In addition, “There are a lot of cross pressures as we continue with the war in Iraq, rebuilding Iraq and the threat of terrorism here at home,” Emerson added. “We want to make sure that we can provide a level of funding necessary to continue the farm bill as it exists in law today, that we don't have any changes to payment limitations, or any changes other than increased funding.”

e-mail: erobinson@primediabusiness.com