“I like peanuts as much as the next guy, but I believe the security of our troops should come before the security of our peanut crop.” This statement, made by President Bush on March 31, 2007, is indicative of the current administration’s continued opposition to funding for peanut storage and handling fees, says Allen Boyd, Democratic congressman from Florida.
“He (Bush) was referring to a provision in the war funding bill that appropriated $74 million to fix the peanut and storage handling problem,” says Boyd. “The implication in that statement is that everything else in that bill was war funding. In that $120-billion bill, the President had requested and received millions of dollars in debt relief for Kosovo, flood control for Mississippi, nutrition programs for Africa, educational and cultural exchange activities around the world, disease control in South Africa, Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, and rebuilding assistance in Lebanon. But $74 million for peanut farmers, to make sure we maintain a strong agricultural production industry in this country? No — let’s veto it.”
Boyd’s comments came during the recent Southern Peanut Farmers Conference held in Panama City, Fla.
“We farmers find ourselves in a very precarious and undesirable position,” says Boyd, adding that he planted his 37th peanut crop this past June. “This is the first time in those 37 years that I planted peanuts in June. We didn’t have rain in February, March, April and May. Our drought broke somewhat on June 1, when we finally received a good rain. Fuel and fertilizer bills are high, and we are in a bad situation.”
As Congress attempts to write a farm bill, he says, the nation is in dire fiscal straits. “We’re involved in a conflict in Iraq that we can’t bring to a favorable conclusion, a conflict that costs our country and our taxpayers $3 billion per week to execute. All of these issues are preventing us from writing a good farm bill, which is critically important to our national security and our economic health,” he says.
Two to 3 percent of the weekly cost of the Iraq war would be enough to pay for peanut storage and handling fees, says Boyd.
The chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Subcommittee — Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) — is under pressure, he says, to accomplish two things in the farm bill. “He has to find money for specialty crops. Peanuts are part of the traditional crop system when it comes to the farm bill because we’ve had a program in the past we can rely upon that helps us to control supply and demand and find a decent market for our crop. Rep. Peterson is under pressure from states like California, Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan that grow specialty crops. They want part of the pie, and they obviously have the political strength to get it,” he says.
Energy provisions in the new farm bill also will demand extra dollars, says Boyd. “We have to help our farmers develop and tap into this energy market of ethanol and biofuels,” he says.
The United States was in a very different situation in 2000 than it is today, he says. “If we look back seven years, Bill Clinton was leaving office and this country, for the first time in about 40 years, had a surplus in the government. We had come through the 1990s, sacrificing, cutting and slashing government programs. And we did our share in agriculture. We wrote Freedom to Farm in 1996 that cut a lot of government subsidies. We closed a lot of FSA offices. We did our part in agriculture in the 1990s when we were slashing the federal government under the leadership of President Clinton and a Republican Congress.”
In 2000, there were budget surpluses “as far as the eye could see,” says Boyd. “In 2001, Bush was elected, and the first thing he did was to suggest a new economic plan. The Blue Dogs (conservative Democrats) met with him, and we suggested that he do three things — cut taxes, pay down the federal debt — which was $5.6 trillion — and set money aside to fix Social Security and Medicare and to write a good farm bill in 2002. There was enough money to do all of those things.”
Instead, he continues, in 2001, the Congress and President Bush put all of the money into a tax cut program. Today, the federal debt stands at $80.9 trillion, he adds.
The federal budget deficit, says Allen is affecting the 2002 farm bill baseline. “The current farm bill eliminated peanut storage and handling fees in the fifth year of the bill. When you go to write the 2007 farm bill, you go to the baseline. If the storage and handling program was eliminated in the last year of the previous farm bill, then it is not in the baseline. Under the ‘pay-go’ rule, you have to find money from somewhere to recapture the fifth year of the storage and handling program.
“We knew we needed to fix that problem in the baseline prior to writing the farm bill. We have worked hard for seven years to try and fix that problem. Shellers, growers and manufacturers all are on the same page, asking Washington, D.C., to fix this problem so we won’t lose storage and handling as we go into 2007. We have been unable to do it, even though we’ve had the House leadership and even Rep. Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) personally advocating that storage and handling be placed in the last emergency supplemental bill this past spring,” says Boyd.
In December of 2006, he says, a statement of administration policy was issued containing a veto threat of the peanut storage and handling program in the agricultural appropriations bill.
“This administration — whenever Congress has tried to fix storage and handling — has actively opposed those efforts. It is a very difficult hill to climb in Washington, D.C., when the administration actively opposes something like this, but this is the environment we’re facing.”
Allen says he recently visited Rob Portman, director of the Office of Management and Budget, to plead the case for funding storage and handling fees.
“I told him we were going through the worst drought in the Southeast that I’ve seen in my lifetime, and we understand as farmers that there are risks involved whenever we plant a crop. But we don’t expect at the same time to be kicked in the teeth by our administration in Washington, D.C. I pleaded with him to help us. But his answer was that it was too much of a political target for him to advise the President not to take issue with it, so we have what we have.”
Allen says he and other representatives on the agriculture committee are still working to get the storage and handling problem solved. “We have two or three more shots at it. Then, we have the Senate, which has not yet taken up the farm bill. We’ll keep working and keep pushing the whole peanut program issue. We understand how important storage and handling is to a peanut crop, and how different peanuts are from other crops that are not perishable. We have a difficult, uphill task. If we miss getting it in the farm bill, we’ll continue working with the ag appropriations bill to get it done.”
Allen advised peanut producers to continue putting pressure on their senators and representatives. “This isn’t just about rural economies. It’s about national security. If we don’t maintain a strong agricultural production industry in this country, we’ll find ourselves in the same shape in food and fiber as we’re in with oil.”