Media reports have Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack saying he does not have the legal authority to declare cottonseed an “other oilseed,” but cotton groups say they are not giving up the fight to make cottonseed a program crop like soybeans or sesame.
One of those groups is Plains Cotton Growers, an organization based in Texas where the downturn in the cotton markets has hit farmers particularly hard because they don’t have a crop that can provide an economic alternative to cotton.
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“We continue to believe the current farm bill allows for this authority for USDA, and many Members of Congress share that belief," PCG President Shawn Holladay said. "This designation would be a tremendous boost for cotton growers across the Cotton Belt who are struggling with low prices, high input costs, weak demand, and growing competition.”
Media outlets were reporting Vilsack said he did not have the authority to make the oilseed designation following a speech to the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture. The NASDA has been meeting in Washington most of this week.
The reports quoted Vilsack as saying Congress would need to find $1 billion in offsets for making cottonseed a program crop. The 2014 farm bill says USDA can provide Agricultural Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage payments when they are triggered for soybeans, canola, … and “other oilseeds.”
Not the end of it
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, issued a statement saying he did not consider the issue resolved.
“I greatly appreciate that Secretary Vilsack has been taking time to consider the request made by me and more than 100 members of Congress to exercise his authority under the law to allow cottonseed to participate alongside other oilseeds under the farm bill,” Conaway said.
“The heavy subsidies and protectionist policies put in place by China, India and other major players have deeply depressed the global cotton market and now seriously jeopardize the livelihoods of thousands of American farm families and an important sector of our nation's economy.”
Noting Vilsack has used the tools available to him under the law to respond to a crisis in agriculture in the past, Conaway said “The current economic situation for cotton farmers is dire, and it warrants the same urgent and meaningful action by the Department.
“Because I have not received an official reply to our request from the Department, but have only read media reports speculating on the Department's intended course of action on this matter, I would simply underscore that U.S. farm policy absolutely hinges on Washington showing the same level of empathy for farmers and ranchers around the country irrespective of where they farm or what they raise.”
Authority exists for designation
The National Cotton Council expressed disappointment in the reports and also indicated it did not consider the matter settled.
“We continue to believe, like a broad group of Members of Congress, that USDA clearly has this authority as described in the current farm bill,” it said. “Our industry remains committed to pursuing a cottonseed designation and policy to help provide long-term stability to the industry.”
The Council’s statement also applauded the “Secretary’s recognition of the industry’s growing need for assistance given the current economic circumstances and his willingness to explore ways of providing meaningful and timely assistance to the industry.”
Last year’s U.S. cotton acreage was the lowest in more than 30 years, while the industry saw the smallest exports in 15 years and cotton prices at their lowest level since the 2009 recession. Cotton demand, 10 percent below the peak observed in 2006, is struggling due to increased competition from synthetic fibers, and foreign governments’ support for international cotton production is increasing.
Holladay acknowledged Secretary Vilsack's understanding of the cotton industry's situation, and said that PCG would continue to work with him and the USDA to help growers facing these challenges.
“We made a strong case and had a significant amount of support," Holladay said. "I can assure you that Plains Cotton Growers will leave no stone unturned when it comes to finding or creating opportunities to help cotton producers in these challenging times, and will keep working to find a solution.”