Ag interest not on same page in diaster legislation

Rep. Marion Berry says it's difficult to pass farm legislation under normal conditions, but it's next to impossible when “you don't have everybody on the same page.” The Arkansas Democrat was referring to the two organizations representing rice farmers. But he could have been talking about disaster assistance legislation.

I sat in on an organizational meeting of the U.S. Rice Producers Association, so I know some of its background. The USRPA folks thought they were being sand-bagged by the USA Rice Federation, which was formed in 1996 by the U.S. Rice Producers Group, the Rice Council and the Rice Millers Association.

The USRPA objected to rice cooperatives holding producer seats on the USA Rice board of directors because the breakaway group felt the co-ops were actually rice millers in producers' clothing.

In recent months, relations have begun to thaw. Stuart Proctor, the then-new president and CEO of USA Rice, first talked about bringing the two groups back together in articles in Farm Press Publications last fall.

In a recent conversation, Proctor talked about meeting with a former colleague in USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service shortly before he took the USA Rice position.

“He told me that foreign buyers don't understand why there are two groups representing rice farmers,” Proctor said. “They see it as brother against brother. When he said having two groups was hurting the U.S. rice industry, I knew something had to be done.”

More recently, Delta Council leaders have said they wanted to work to unite the groups. Whether that would be under the umbrella of the USA Rice Federation remains to be seen.

Speaking at a USA Rice Conference in Washington this month, Berry said rice farmers are fighting an uphill battle politically while two groups represent them.

“It's almost impossible to accomplish anything if you don't have the industry pulling together,” he said. “Let me encourage you to do whatever you must to get everyone on the same page.”

Later, House Ag Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte told the group he opposed the Cochran disaster assistance bill because it doesn't “provide enough assistance to those who really need it.”

Those remarks were another indication of how many in Congress have been blinded by press accounts of the severe drought in the upper Midwest to the dire conditions faced by Southern farmers from a multitude of weather problems.

At press time, Sen. Thad Cochran was trying to work out an agreement to keep “all the disaster money from moving north,” as someone put it. But he, too, faces an uphill battle because of yet another example of ag interests failing to work together for all of agriculture.

Footnote: The Bush administration wasn't helping with its flip-flop from Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman's endorsement of the Cochran legislation to Budget Director Mitch Daniels' demands that any disaster funding come out of the 2002 farm bill.

Given the rising sentiments for war in Iraq and new forecasts of triple-digit budget deficits, it looks like farmers once again will be made to pay for the foreign policy mistakes of their government.

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