March 2006
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AL farmers urge Congressmen not to rock the boat

 
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers of Anniston chats with Mary Ann Sheppard of Macon County prior to last month’s meeting of the U.S. House of Representatives Agriculture Committee in Auburn.
Alvin Benn

A group of Congressmen working on the 2007 Farm Bill got an earful from Alabama and Georgia farmers during a "listening tour" last month.

The same theme permeated presentations throughout the session as farmers let the federal officials know they don’t want them to rock the boat on commodity programs and other aspects of agriculture.

The Feb. 7 event drew more than 200 farmers who filled a large conference room at Auburn University’s Foy Student Center.

One by one, they took turns addressing more than a dozen members of the House Agriculture Committee. Another congressional field hearing was held in North Carolina the previous day to meet with farmers in that state.

The 2002 Farm Bill is coming to an end and as it prepares for the new one, Congress is looking at an economic scenario far different from the one that preceded federal legislation five years ago.

Instead of record surpluses, the government is studying deficits in the billions of dollars. That could mean cuts throughout the budget.

 
Bob Yates, center, a poultry and timber farmer in Woodland, testified in February before a congressional committee at Auburn University. At his left is Hilton Segler, a pecan grower from Albany, GA.
 
For that reason, farm leaders in the two states appealed to the 13 Congressmen who came to Alabama to apply any cuts that might result from the deficits as equitably as possible.

"We just ask that cuts in the federal budget be done across the board equally," said Jerry Newby, a north Alabama farmer who is president of the Alabama Farmers Federation.

Newby said the current Farm Bill cost "less than what was originally projected" and, for that reason, "we feel agriculture should get credit for these savings."

Should Congress implement sharp cuts in the 2007 budget and the Farm Bill, it could only add to the troubles being experienced by southern farmers already hurt by weather and economic problems.

Last year’s devastating hurricanes along the Gulf Coast cost farmers billions of dollars. In addition to that, damage to offshore oil operations increased energy expenses throughout the country.

"These high fuel costs are eating us to death," said U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, the ranking Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee.

Walter Corcoran, Jr., a cotton and peanut producer from Barbour County, told the committee that there are "few certainties" in the world of agribusiness today.

"We as producers of agriculture commodities can control very few things, a fact that was really driven home last fall when Hurricanes Katrina and Rita slammed into the Gulf Coast."

Corcoran said the two hurricanes not only destroyed crops in the hard hit areas, they also sent "shock waves" through the U.S. economy as fuel prices skyrocketed during the critical harvesting period.

Corcoran noted that many farming factors such as fuel, fertilizer and commodity prices are out of the control of those who depend on them.

"That is why we need a stable and consistent farm policy," he said. "It provides the essential foundation upon which we build long-term plans. We have such a policy in the ’02 Farm Bill."

U.S. Reps. Jo Bonner of Mobile, Mike Rogers of Anniston and Terry Everett of Rehobeth were among the congressional delegation sitting on a stage, facing a panel of farmers from the two neighboring states.

"I’m here to find out what our people in Alabama want," said Rogers. "So are the other members of this committee."

In addition to farmers, Congress also is seeking input from ranchers, agribusiness interests and government officials as it prepares for the new Farm Bill.

Timber is another entity that could benefit or suffer from the Farm Bill and Richard Brinker, the dean of Auburn’s School of Forestry and Wildlife Sciences, was on hand to listen to the testimony.

He said the current Farm Bill includes incentives which provide help in prescribed burnings, insect and disease control and other aspects of a multi-billion dollar annual industry in Alabama.

"The average size of timberland in Alabama is about 80 acres," Brinker said during a break at the hearing. "Timber is cut every 15 to 20 years and that’s why it’s important to have government support for our industry."

The purpose of the field hearings is to give federal lawmakers a clearer picture of agriculture needs and to separate programs that may have led to successes or failures.

"A farm bill is a comprehensive piece of legislation that not only involves farm programs, but conservation, nutrition, forestry and trade among other issues," said U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, a Republican from Virginia who is chairman of the House Committee on Agriculture.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.