Why? It was a question being asked by many peanut producers in the Southeast as they witnessed the demise of a federal program that has served the region and its growers well for more than 60 years.
Why eliminate a program that has played such an important role in the economy of the rural Southeast and has helped provide consumers with a safe and plentiful source of peanuts? And, more importantly to some growers, why didn't peanut commodity group leaders fight harder for the preservation of the quota program?
The answer to the first question is simple: there simply were not enough votes in Congress to sustain a peanut program based on allotments. Back in 1996, the program passed by a mere three votes, and those votes no longer are there.
“We didn't have a chance to save the quota system because there were not enough votes on either side of the aisle,” says Charlie Norwood, a Republican congressman from Georgia. “I don't even believe we could sustain the quota system if we held a referendum on it in Georgia.”
The fight over a quota-based peanut program was never between Republicans and Democrats, says Norwood. “It was a fight between rural and urban America. It was a fight between peanut country — Georgia, Florida and Alabama — and the rest of the country. We've lost a quota program that served the rural South for 60 years. But we're not losing the quota program because of somebody's farm bill. We're losing that program because of the GATT and NAFTA trade agreements,” he says.
Under the quota-based program, U.S. growers eventually would have lost their domestic market for peanuts, contends Norwood. “In just a few years, Mexico, Argentina and perhaps China would be furnishing U.S. consumers with all of the peanuts and peanut butter they could handle. They would be furnishing them at world prices, which would be a lot less than our quota-based price.”
Thank God, says Norwood, there's enough money in the agricultural budget to compensate quota holders. “I know they don't want us to do that, and I don't blame them. I understand the value of that quota land, but I can think of nothing worse than having the federal government pull it out from under you with no compensation. It would be typical of the federal government, but it would be wrong.”
The $1.2 billion quota buyout itself is a remarkable achievement, especially considering the onslaught of negative press in recent months.
For example, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution labeled the quota-based peanut program, “The disgrace of our farm welfare system.”
The Journal-Constitution, a frequent critic of the quota-based program, goes on to say, “To make it even worse, those who actually grow peanuts will have a chance to double-dip at the federal trough; that is, unless their conscience gets the better of them. While they collect their quota buyouts, they also can sign up for new government farm subsidies.”
Meanwhile, the Environmental Working Group has been telling anyone who'll listen that most people who own peanut quotas don't even raise peanuts, and that 1,346 quota holders in Georgia don't even reside in the state.
The new peanut program, with its “three-prong” safety net, should provide consistent and reliable support for farmers, says Norwood, allowing them to plan for the future. “We must preserve the U.S. peanut industry and make sure peanuts can be grown and sold for a profit.”
And as for the commodity group leaders — such as those with the Georgia Peanut Commission, the Georgia Peanut Producers Association, the Alabama Peanut Producers Association and the Florida Peanut Producers Association — growers should thank them for looking to the future rather than clinging to the past.
Many of these leaders have come under heavy criticism for the positions they have taken during the farm bill negotiations. The fact is, they faced reality. While fighting for the quota program may have been a noble pursuit in the eyes of some, such a fight would have benefited no one, and likely would have resulted in no peanut program and no compensation for quota holders.
The most vocal critics of these leaders will continue to make noise about the loss of the quota program — they'll file lawsuits, ethics complaints and anything else that'll draw attention to their cause. But for the good of the entire U.S. peanut industry, it's time to move on.