When Bill Hawks farmed for a living, he knew he could compete with any other farmer in the world. Unfortunately, he felt like competing with other governments was a bit more than he could handle. Now that he earns his keep as a government insider, he's trying to even the odds, chipping away at trade distorting barriers farmers have to clamber over just to get into the market.

“It is not if we can compete, but how we can compete,” says Hawks, a U.S. Undersecretary of Agriculture, and a native Mississippian.

Speaking to growers attending the 2003 Delta Ag Expo in Cleveland, Miss., Hawks said, “We can not allow other governments to simply not accept either new technologies or our products, based on non-scientific phyto-sanitary claims.”

The goal, he says, is to make sure U.S. agriculture is treated fairly and equitably. “To compete with other countries around the world we may have to see some changes in crop mixes and the like, but the truth is you as farmers are good at what you do. And we as government, need to make sure doors don't get closed on the commodities produced by U.S. farmers on the basis of pseudo-science.

“Whether we are trading with Mexico, Canada, Japan, or some other country entirely, we need to make sure it's done fairly,” Hawks says. “If you, as a trading partner, expect us to do one thing, you're going to have to do the same thing.”

It's easy to say commodity trading decisions should be based on common sense and sound science. However, Hawks is the first to admit that's easier said than done. “Our goal is always to base decisions on common sense and sound science, but often sound science, pseudo-science and political science combine to make that more difficult.”

The Mexican government's failure to reduce tariffs as agreed to in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) is one example of political science clouding the export market. “They are trying to come back and renegotiate on some of these things, but NAFTA is very clear on what should happen,” Hawks says. “Political science is coming into play, but our response is, ‘a deal is a deal.’ It's this kind of friction that will continue to go on, but we're standing there trying to make sure we don't back up.”

U.S. producers export more than 25 percent of all commodities grown in this country, and Hawks believes U.S. agriculture will play an important role in reversing the country's trade deficit.

One key to U.S. growers successfully competing for their share of the export market is continued agricultural research. “We understand we need to continue and improve research programs. More resources are needed, and I will tell you candidly that those budgets have been cut to levels below where they need to be,” Hawks says.

Acknowledging that many Delta farmers are frustrated with the process of signing up for the 2002 farm bill, Hawks says, “Know that this was a monumental shift in process and be patient. Private industry can make changes rapidly, but the federal government is like a battleship. It gets steered in one direction and takes a while to get steered back. We're trying to get back on the right course, and we will work through this process.”

e-mail: dmuzzi@primediabusiness.com