The hope of a new farm bill requires the support of more than just farmers and ranchers according to National Cotton Council Chairman Jimmy Dodson; it will need broad support from American consumers who will actually benefit from comprehensive agricultural legislation.
"The reason you have a farm bill is not just to help the agricultural community and rural Americans; it is really about maintaining capacity and agricultural production that will keep food and fiber prices affordable," Dodson told cotton producers in Corpus Christi during a National Cotton Foundation producer exchange program last week. "Every time the safety net works it keeps another producer in business and adds production capacity for the commodities he produces, and it drives prices down for every American."
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Dodson made a surprise visit and addressed a group of West Coast cotton producers on a tour stop of the exchange event, a program that encourages cotton producers to share information and technology with growers in other regions across the country.
Last month a group of cotton producers from the Southeast and Mid-South traveled across states to exchange information and ideas as part of the program. While western producers came to Texas this year for the annual exchange program, Southwest cotton producers visited farms and businesses in California.
The nine producers from California and Arizona traveled to Lubbock and Corpus Christi as part of the last leg of the exchange program and were touring a cotton co-op warehouse, Gulf Compress, at the Port of Corpus Christi when Dodson made the unscheduled appearance. Dodson, in addition to be being the newly elected chairman of NCC, lives and farms just southwest of Corpus Christi.
"The people who benefit the most [from a comprehensive Farm Bill] are the folks who have fixed or limited incomes, but everybody across the scale benefits because it helps to keep food prices low—lower in this country than they have been throughout the history of the world, and our fiber prices are low as well," he said.
Safety net benefits consumers too
Dodson says the safety net provided by a farm bill is what keeps production numbers high—the "offset for that extra production" –and what producers need to create an abundance of product that provides stability in prices. He says most Americans take it for granted without realizing the farm bill is what makes low prices possible and provides a good variety of food and fiber products as well.
"When Americans go to the store they expect a wide variety of healthy food products at affordable prices, and the same can be said about fiber products, like a new cotton shirt, dresses and bed sheets. We have a great system going here and we don't want to neglect the system by ignoring helpful legislation that makes it possible," Dodson added.
He says Americans should call their Congressmen and voice support for a new farm bill and stay engaged throughout the process to prevent the loss of farm legislation and a resulting jump in food and fiber prices.
"What many Americans do not realize is that the actual financial portion of the farm bill that goes to producers and into research is actually less than one quarter of one percent of the bill," Dodson said, suggesting that if every federal program were to provide the same level of benefit to consumers, the cost of living would be lower for every American across the board.
"We're not trying to break the bank; in fact, agriculture has cut the baseline for expenditures by about 50 percent, and if everybody else would do that, our national budget could be balanced almost immediately."
Dodson says the National Cotton Council has worked with many legislators in Washington to help drive the farm bill forward and he remains hopeful those efforts will eventually pay off.
Little middle ground left
"I guess some of you are probably wondering what is going on with the farm bill at this stage," he said. "If you are in that place, that's exactly where I am. We are working very hard to get this done and have a lot of friends in Congress. But one of the problems we are having is that for generations politicians from both parties have worked together to pass a farm bill, but we are not seeing that kind of cooperation now."
He says recent elections have pushed Republicans farther right and Democrats farther left and there are not as many elected officials who are nearer the middle of the aisle where he says traditional farm bill support has come from and where it is generally the strongest.
"The disconcerting thing is this trend may continue, and some members of Congress who are not necessarily our friends say maybe this will be the last multi-year farm bill we will have—if we get it passed at all. I hope this is not true."
Dodson says a highway bill passes through Congress each year, which is an appropriations type bill. He says he has heard that there are a few lawmakers who are suggesting this is the type of legislation that should be enacted to support agriculture. But such a bill would mean no continuity and farmers would never know from year-to-year what level of support they may or may not receive.
For high investment operations like farming and ranching, a bill of that nature would be devastating because there would be no way to plan, which is an important requirement for agriculture.
"You should also be aware that we are facing a challenge this year in addition to the politics of the farm bill. Because we lost to Brazil in a World Trade Organization (WTO) case, that forced us to tailor our safety net to be WTO compliant, you’re seeing a little different proposal from cotton this year than you have ever seen before."
But he assured producers that while those changes may look different, they are designed to provide about the same level of funding in the farm bill as before, but in such a way as to conform to trade requirements.