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The Washington Feed

Agriculture needs to start playing offense

September 27, 2011

Hardly a day passes when the front page of The Washington Post doesn’t contain more gloomy news about the economy or the state of the nation in general. It makes me wonder if things are really that bad, or if the news media is doing its best to see who can come up with the most sensationally depressing story. And what kind of shape is agriculture in? Are the challenges really as severe as we read?

I recently attended the Washington Ag Roundtable here in D.C. where former Congressman Charlie Stenholm (D.-Tex.) provided “An Objective Look at the U.S. Congress.” Ex.-Rep Stenholm spent 26 years as one of agriculture’s champions in the Halls of Congress. He offered his personal assessment at the roundtable of what’s going on in Congress and what may be in store for agriculture.

Now a senior policy advisor in a noted Washington law firm, Stenholm also co-chairs the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget and has been working to come up with recommendations for Congress to consider in dealing with the nation’s financial woes.

Stenholm confirmed what many of us have thought for some time: agriculture (and the nation) is in deep trouble. From an ag perspective, the USDA needs to take a hard look at what is essential and what isn’t. He suggests that the entire Department be restructured for the 21st century, something he fought for in the 90s. The inefficiency that existed then persists today.

What exactly has to be done? According to the former congressman, “everything has to be put on the table.” This includes subsidies. Yes, he said subsidies.

If you recall, Stenholm spent much of his political career defending ag subsidies. He supported them “to provide a level playing field in the world.” “When the world gets level, subsidies will go away,” he often said. “Well, now,” he predicts, “subsidies are going away. They will be a casualty of the budgetary process.”

Stenholm claims that agricultural challenges are compounded by the actual makeup of the House Ag Committee. Of the 46 members, only 17 have agricultural experience (11 on farm and six in agribusiness). Even more disconcerting, 18 are first termers on the committee who have never written a farm bill. At this point, we don’t know what they are going to come up with: one Farm Bill, two or even three. The House and Senate Ag Committees must invest considerable effort in the next few months to draft legislation that is acceptable and works. In brief, they are faced with an unparalleled, monumental challenge considering all the other economic and budget problems.

Stenholm had a lot to say about our broken political system, energy, trade, global demands on U.S. agriculture and the current political race. I’ll provide those insights in my next blog. One closing suggestion from the former congressman for everyone in agriculture, “We have to start talking and playing offense instead of defense if we expect to change how the general public reacts to agriculture.”

We’re making some progress; but, we have miles to go. 

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