The American cotton growers’ own government has placed bullseyes on the side of U.S. cotton bales, offering free shots to anyone and everyone.

It was a frustrated National Cotton Council Chairman John Pucheu of Tranquility, Calif., who addressed his home crowd at the annual California Cotton Growers Association annual meeting about the ongoing efforts to write a new federal farm bill in the shadow of the onerous World Trade Organization (WTO) negotiations.

Pucheu called the 2007 farm bill negotiations the “toughest” he has seen in his career as a cotton producer on the West Side of the San Joaquin Valley. That includes 25 years in leadership roles in a variety of state and national cotton organizations.

The frustration comes partly because the bill is working fine — a view held by most of the major commodity groups in the U.S. However, the Bush administration and USDA Secretary Mike Johanns want to change it.

Pucheu said the current marketing loan makes U.S. cotton competitive in world markets; direct and counter-cyclical payments now provide a safety net when prices are low; and the current bill is flexible enough to allow growers to make solid economic decisions.

He said an estimated 25 percent of U.S. cotton acreage is moving to soybeans and corn and cited that as a sign the current farm bill is working.

The Bush administration has proposed changes in the federal farm program, but as many point out, it will be the Democrat-controlled Congress that will write the new farm bill, and a similarly Democrat-controlled Congress wrote the last one.

Perhaps more onerous is the target the current administration has placed on the U.S. cotton industry, which has said repeatedly it has been singled out in WTO trade negotiations for special punitive treatment.

Earl Williams, president of CCGA, said the U.S. cotton industry has been “picked clean” by the WTO determining U.S. farm policy through its rulings against U.S. cotton.

Pucheu noted that Johanns repeatedly points out that 80 percent of U.S. cotton production is exported, and that American cotton producers should therefore “see the value of complying with all international trade agreements.”

He is quick to emphasize that the reason the vast majority of U.S. cotton is exported is because the U.S. textile industry has been decimated by trade agreements made with China and other nations, opening up domestic markets to imports and leaving the domestic industry unprotected from unfair foreign competition.

Pucheu noted that if the same quotas and duties now in place to protect the domestic biofuel industry were in place for the domestic textile industry, the “U.S. cotton export picture would look entirely different than it does today.

“We can only wonder what the cotton price would be today if the domestic textile industry was consuming 11 million to 12 million bales annually” as it once did, instead of a consumption now about half that.

Pucheu said many of the changes proposed by the USDA for the new farm bill are concessions to increase U.S. market access for China, and that the weakened farm bill proposal puts the U.S. in a position of weakness going into the next round of WTO talks.

Every segment of U.S. agriculture believes the U.S. should go into the next round of WTO negotiations from a “position of strength,” said Pucheu, not with a bag of concessions.

As Pucheu was making his presentation, the U.S. cotton industry was in Geneva defending itself against in what he called a “high level” WTO session.

“We are concerned this meeting is to seize additional concessions from U.S. cotton,” he said.

Another Fresno County cotton producer, Don Cameron of Burrell, Calif., is the new president of CCGA, and he echoes Pucheu’s concerns that cotton has been singled out like no other commodity in world trade negotiations and agreements.

“This process has brought pressure to bear on the cotton industry and, unfortunately, until there is an overall final agreement or a total collapse of the concept and the organization, we in the cotton industry will continue to live with uncertainties about future trade policies and how they impact our business in future trade policy.”

email: hcline@farmpress.com