OK. Admit it. How many of you would like to have been able to sit down with Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns in the last few weeks and talk with him about the impact President Bush's budget proposals would have on cotton and rice farmers?
A group of Tennessee farmers, state officials and farm organization representatives had that opportunity practically fall into their laps recently when the secretary made his first official visit to the Mid-South.
Johanns traveled to Brownsville, Tenn., to present the first HealthierUS Schools Challenge awards to three elementary schools in Haywood County. Then he toured the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service's Cotton Program Office in Memphis, Tenn., and met with the farmers and other leaders.
As he has in several forums in recent weeks, Johanns said farmers and other members of the farming community must do their part to help the president reach his goal of cutting the federal budget deficit in half by the year 2010.
“We all should be more businesslike in what we do,” the secretary noted. “It isn't good for any part of agriculture to have federal deficits at this level. I've said it's a little bit like taking your kids' checkbook and writing checks out of that.”
But Willie German, who farms near Somerville, Tenn., reminded Johanns that farm bill spending represents less than 1 percent of the total federal budget and that even if the president cut out all the farm programs the changes wouldn't have much impact on the deficit.
“I think this country has to decide whether we want farmers to stay in business or whether we want to be dependent on other countries for food like we are for oil,” said German. “This farm bill has been good for the rural economy, which powers this country. If we lose it, the situation will be a lot different than what we've been working under in the last two or three years.”
Referring to his tenure as governor of Nebraska before he became secretary, Johanns said he received numerous requests to spare programs when he was forced to cut the state budget.
“If everyone gets a pass on his program, then we would still have the deficit,” he said. “We are all in this together. There isn't any way to say, ‘Get the other guy's program; don't get mine.’ I do know that, no matter what your political stripe, if we don't do something on the deficit, this is not going to turn out very well.”
John Lindamood, a farmer from Tiptonville, Tenn., said he believes American farmers have always recognized that “when the need to cut the budget comes along we have to bear our fair share.
“If you look back over the last two decades when those budget cuts have been made, however, the cuts have been disproportionately large in agriculture,” he said. “Be that as it may, we're prepared to shoulder our share of the burden.”
Many producers suffered under the 1996 farm bill, a law Lindamood said did not work for farmers. The Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002, in contrast, has put life back into the farm community.
“The 2002 farm bill has been very effective,” he noted. “As Willie said, it has propped up the rural communities; it's increased the tax base. You go talk to the car dealers, the bankers, the insurance agents, and they'll tell you that as the farmer prospers in this region, the community prospers.
“I think the cornerstone of this program that makes it so effective for the producer and for the budget is that it is counter-cyclically oriented. That is, the counter-cyclical payments are there when crop prices are low, and when crop prices are high they disappear. I'm very concerned about seeing provisions that worked being taken out of that program.”
Johanns said that when the 1996 farm bill was put into place in the late 1990s, a number of factors worked to its detriment, including the lack of access to trade in foreign markets — another theme he has been emphasizing in recent speeches.
Noting that farm program payments reached a record high in 2000, he said growers might ask “why agriculture wasn't rocking and rolling in 2000 when that much money was being pumped into agriculture?” he said. “I would suggest that these are some of the things we should think about.”
As he announced earlier, Johanns said USDA will hold a number of listening sessions around the country as Congress begins the arduous task of re-authorizing the farm bill when the current law expires in 2007.
“Just like what happened here today, I want to hear from you, and then I want to put out information and statistics and examine the situation,” he said. “We know this year was different, and we're paying out more because we had a bumper crop and low prices. In the first two years of this bill, agriculture was enjoying much better times.”
Earlier in the discussion, Alan King, a farmer from Brownsville and board member of the Tennessee Boll Weevil Eradication Program, thanked Johanns for USDA's support of eradication, noting it had helped farmers in middle and west Tennessee increase their yield averages from 600 to 900 pounds of lint per acre.
Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture Ken Givens, who farms in east Tennessee, thanked Johanns for the Bush administration's support of alternative fuels programs for ethanol and biodiesel.
Johanns also talked about how impressed he was with the students from the Sunny Hill, Haywood and East Side Elementary Schools who earlier in the day had received the HealthierUS School Challenge award along with students at the Cypress Grove Elementary School in Slidell, La.
“I bet I could go a long time as secretary of agriculture and not give out awards to three schools in the same county,” he said. “The kids were great, very polite. If those kids are an indication of what you're doing in your schools, you have reason to be proud.”