U.S. Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns continued USDA's nationwide farm bill listening tour in late August with a Deep South stop at Tuskegee University in Alabama. Johanns jotted notes as farmers took their turn at the microphone to voice their concerns about the shaping of the new farm bill and about the future of agriculture in general.

Many of those speaking urged the secretary to maintain and strengthen government programs for cotton and peanuts while others asked Johanns to revamp or eliminate the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Several black farmers attending the hearing complained about continued discrimination in distributing government funds through the Farm Service Agency.

Charles Holmes, a fifth-generation farmer from Marion in west Alabama, said he was farming the same land his family homesteaded in 1819. “I speak as a father. I have three sons — two have graduated from college and one is still in school. My wife and I had a hard time deciding whether or not to encourage them to go into farming. Two of them are back on the farm now,” he said.

Holmes said his family was “land locked” when it came to buying more property. “The doctors, lawyers and stockholders can come to Perry County, Ala., and offer a lot more for land to hunt and fish and play on than my children or myself can purchase the same land for growing food and fiber. I hope we'll address that problem in the next farm bill,” he said.

Ron Sparks, Alabama Commissioner of Agriculture told Johanns that a survey in Business Week magazine listing the most desirable 100 professions — for security, earnings and prestige — listed agriculture at No. 98. “How do we encourage young people to go into agriculture, and what will we do whenever we lose this generation of farmers? We need to do everything we can to encourage young people to stay in agriculture. But how do we do that? We do it with profitability,” he said.

If young people can't be shown that they can make a living and provide for their families with agriculture, then they won't go into it, said Sparks. “We need to have more vocational agriculture programs in our schools so our children can learn about agriculture. We must have a level playing field, and we need to make sure that those who send products into this country live by the same standards that we ask our farmers to live and produce by.”

Sparks said it was “absolutely ridiculous” that people in the United States are paying $2.65 for a gallon of gasoline. “I support your commitment to alternatives. Agriculture can pave the way to independence from foreign oil. We must do that now,” he said.

Max Bozeman, an Elba, Ala., producer and vice president of the Alabama Cattlemen's Association, thanked Johanns for his efforts on behalf of U.S. cattle producers in re-opening foreign markets to U.S. beef products.

“Cattle is one of Alabama's largest farming commodities with 25,000 cattle farmers having more than $400 million in sales annually. I know first-hand the impact of the farm bill, having been a peanut producer and now being a cattle producer. Those of us in production agriculture understand we must protect and preserve our natural resources. From the standpoint of a landowner and a cattleman, I can see the benefits of monetary incentive programs to obtain this,” he said.

Bozeman said his livelihood depended on being able to produce beef at a competitive price for a global market. “We need education and research from our land-grant colleges and universities to help us keep abreast of this rapidly changing industry. We must produce a quality product profitably with today's rising input costs if we're to stay in business.”

Eric Smith of Pickens County said he was from one of those areas of Alabama that typically has been impoverished, the northern part of what is known as the Black Belt.

“The biggest asset we have other than our people is our land base. Much of our land base is tied up in government programs. The regulations that your department administers directly affect our operation — they keep me in business and perhaps will put me out of business,” he told the secretary.

Smith said he appreciated USDA's support of the Beef Checkoff. “It's a self-help program, and we feel it has done a world of good. We're pleased that USDA worked hard to get a favorable ruling from the courts,” he said.

Smith encouraged continued funding of the EQUIP and WHIP programs, crediting them with improving the quality of the environment and of wildlife. However, he was not so favorable about the CRP.

“The Conservation Reserve Program has been a positive program in past farm bills. However, for one who is making a living from the land, the CRP makes it difficult for me to keep the land that is in that program. I am competing on a rental basis with the government. This land is out of production and sits idle. Our area needs that land back in production. The cattle industry will grow again in the South, and we'd like to see that land become available,” said Smith.

Richard Edgar of Deatsville, Ala., said the crops he grows — primarily cotton rotated with grains — are expensive to produce. “Cotton costs us more than $400 per acre, and it'll cost me about $450 per acre by the time I fill up my cotton picker with fuel. We're caught in a cost/price squeeze with cotton at the mid-40-cents range per pound. We need a strong safety net for the cotton program, and we need export provisions and the Step 2 Program.

“These programs have been under attack from the WTO, and the cotton industry sees this to be as much of a threat from other nations as any terrorist threat. Third-world countries are telling us how to run our agriculture and how to preserve and protect agriculture in this nation. We don't need to be in a position of being under the same strain to receive our food and fiber as we are for our energy needs in this country.”

At the very least, said Edgar, the cotton program needs to continue as is and continue providing a safety net for farmers with the counter-cyclical program and marketing assistance. “Just a few years ago, we milled two-thirds of our cotton in the United States, but the textile industry has left this country. Now, it's one-third domestic use and two-thirds exports. We desperately need help with programs such as Step 2 to effectively compete in the world market,” he said.

Speaking on behalf of Southeastern peanut producers was Carl Sanders, president of the Alabama Peanut Producers Association. “In our last farm bill, we went from a quota system to a marketing loan program similar to other crops. I'm pleased to say to you today that this has worked well for Southeastern peanut producers as well as the entire industry. We've seen record increases in the demand for peanuts as manufacturers have increased advertising and introduced many new products,” he said.

As discussions begin over a new farm bill, Sanders said he believed the entire peanut industry would like to maintain a “steady course.” “In addition, the government cost for the peanut program is expected to be well below the original projections. American agriculture has been forced to compete in a world market. USDA programs with payment provisions must be accurate and based on world prices that will allow us to be competitive.

“When the new farm bill is considered, we hope every effort will be made to insure that the producers who are assuming the risks in agriculture will be the recipients of the programs and incentives. Our program is basically working well to the benefit of everyone, from the producer to the consumer,” said Sanders.

Leo Hollinger, a cattleman from Wilcox County, Ala., told the secretary that in the past 10 years, there had been a 28-percent decrease in the number of cattle in the 13 counties comprising the state's Black Belt Region.

“If cattle numbers had remained at their 1995 level, there would be an additional $35 million circulating in the Black Belt. We feel there is a great potential for the cattle industry to turn Alabama's Black Belt into Alabama's Green Belt. And CRP was a major factor in this decrease,” he said.

Hollinger said there were 194,000 acres of CRP land in the Black Belt Region, with 125,000 acres scheduled to come out by 2007. “It's estimated that 20,000 additional cows could be added to the 13 counties with government incentives, for fencing and water in particular. We feel this could be a reality. This could add approximately $7 million to the economy from the sale of cattle alone,” he said.

Harold Gaines, a farmer from central Alabama's Autauga County, also spoke against renewing CRP contracts. “I would ask for the elimination of renewed CRP contracts. I see no cost benefits in renewing contracts. I also would like to see the USDA take a hard look at coupling government payments with active, at-risk producers. On our farm, we find ourselves in competition with the U.S. Government to rent land from which we derive our income,” said Gaines.

Ricky Wiggins, the managing partner of a family farming operation in Covington County, Ala., proposed that the USDA look at revamping or replacing the current crop insurance program.

“Most producers realize that no one should be guaranteed a profit, but we do see a real need for crop insurance reform that will give good businessmen the tools they need to manage the unique risks involved in agricultural production,” said Wiggins.

In 1999, he explained, he was part of an Alabama Farmers Federation committee appointed to look at reforming crop insurance. “We found that it was too expensive for adequate coverage, too many producers were left out, and there still was too much room for fraud. We prepared a concept known as IRMA — Individual Risk Management Accounts — that would allow a producer to take money he has been paying into crop insurance premium and put it into a tax-deferred, interest-bearing account.”

e-mail: phollis@primediabusiness.com