Agriculture issues facing Congress and the Mississippi Legislature range from a far-reaching, long-term federal Farm Bill to state labeling requirements for imports and an overhaul of the state agricultural aviation board.
“Given commodity prices over the last three years, some major farmers who generally plant a great deal of acreage, particularly in cotton, have decided to lay out this year or stop farming altogether,” said Mississippi Agriculture and Commerce Commissioner Lester Spell. “For farmers trying to decide what crops to plant this year, the delay in the Farm Bill is perturbing, to say the least.”
Agriculture is the largest industry in Mississippi, accounting for one in four jobs and boosting the economy by $20 billion annually.
“Most people don’t realize the impact of agriculture,” said Spell. “When agriculture does well from an economic standpoint, the whole economy does well. That’s one reason the Farm Bill is so important.”
The Farm Bill
When U.S. Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) introduced a Farm Bill in the Senate on Nov. 2, 2001, agribusiness leaders said it was workable. But by the time it was called up on the Senate floor on Feb. 13, the Senate had deleted all of its language and replaced it with language from another bill and the Grassley Amendment, co-authored by a Corn Belt senator from the upper Midwest, which placed severe payment limits on row crops. House and Senate versions of the bill have been referred to a conference committee.
“It’s way too early to know what’s going to come out of conference but we’re working on it,” said Mark Keenum, chief of staff for U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss), chairman of the agriculture appropriations panel. “Staffs are going through the versions of the Farm Bill line by line. The Senate version is nearly 1,500 pages. The payment limitation issue is a high priority for Sen. Cochran. We’re working aggressively to find a way to benefit farmers in Mississippi and across the country. It could take months.”
According to the Congressional Budget Office, individual farmers would max out on all payment limits at the following levels:
Wheat: 3,876 acres
Corn: 1,981 acres
Soybeans: 3,384 acres
Cotton: 881 acres
Rice: 487 acres
David Waide, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, said the Senate-passed farm legislation was unfair to Southern farmers.
“The limitations placed on production payments by the Senate are completely out of line when applied to Southern crops,” Waide said. “Now is not the time to place further economic restrictions on our farmers, who are already suffering through some of the most difficult financial conditions experienced in a long time.”
The new Farm Bill — The Agriculture, Conservation and Rural Enhancement Act of 2001, also known as The ACRE Act — would replace the 1996 Freedom To Farm Bill and would set federal agriculture policy for the next five years. Under current law, individual farms are limited to $460,000 in annual crop payments. The Grassley Amendment proposes a $275,000 annual cap.
“If the Farm Bill that limits our farmers to $275,000 is passed, profit for larger farmers will be gone and I can’t see how many, if any, large operators can cash flow at that limit,” said Steve Rochelle, CEO of Ridgeland-based First South Agricultural Credit Association.
On the Senate floor, Cochran said, “There’s a major difference in cost structure between crops in the South and in the Midwest. According to Mississippi State University, the cost of producing one acre of cotton is $550 while corn is $350 an acre and soybeans are $100 per acre. On a 1,000-acre farm in a given year, a cotton farmer would have $200,000 in expenses more than a corn farmer and $400,000 a year more than a soybean farmer. There’s a significant difference in the expense of Southern crops over mid-western crops so that’s why payments to Mississippi seem larger than those to the Midwest. It costs more to produce in the South.”
In the last three years, Congress has provided more than $25 billion in emergency assistance for U.S. farmers that have experienced economic difficulties due to declining export demand, higher production costs and weather-related problems.
Spell said, “Mississippi farmers have a great deal riding on the influence of Sen. Cochran, and he has always delivered for agriculture in this state.”
The poultry predicament
On March 1, Russia threatened a ban on U.S. poultry imports, citing concerns about antibiotics and hormones used in chicken feed.
“We just cleared up a situation with Japan on some health issues, where they confused our chickens with some chickens in the Northeast that are sold live and don’t have the same health restrictions,” said Mike McAlpin, president of the Mississippi Poultry Association.
Don Ford, president of American Poultry International, said Russia had established and approved the production procedures in 1996.
“Some say the threatened ban is in retaliation for the steel tariffs and that they want to give the Russian steel industry some negotiating leverage, but they are really trying to protect their very small poultry industry,” Ford said.
To combat depressed timber prices, the Land, Water and Timber Resource Board, created by lawmakers last year to support agriculture product development, is working on new products, new uses for existing products and new markets with its $10 million budget, said Spell.
“For example, a $1-million grant has been given to MSU to work on a new patented technology that would take juvenile pines through a process that uses an adhesive to cause a compression of them,” he said. “The end result is dimensional or structural-type lumber that has a lot of qualities normal lumber doesn’t have. Using this type of lumber seems to be a trend in the building industry nowadays.”
The Mississippi Technology Alliance is the lead agency in helping develop alternative energy sources in the state by using timber byproducts.
“It’s a project that Ways and Means committee chairman Billy McCoy has put a great deal of emphasis on,” Spell said. “We toured TVA last month to see some of their projects and later met with Sen. Cochran, Congressman Taylor and other congressional representatives in Washington, D.C., telling them about the MTA project. We’re very excited about the possibilities.”
Mississippi legislative issues
At press time, the status of agricultural bills in the Mississippi
• House Bill 1836, which would allow the issuance of $10 million in bonds for the Land, Water and Timber Resources Board for alternative energy development, had passed the House and was awaiting action in the Senate.
• Senate Bills 2345 and 2367 were awaiting the governor’s approval. SB 2345 would require wholesalers and retailers to label foreign-raised fish with country of origin labeling and stipulate that foreign-raised fish could not be called “farm-raised catfish.” SB 2367 would require country of origin labeling on beef sold in Mississippi.
• Senate Bill 2922 had been returned for concurrence. The bill would enact the Mississippi Forestry Economic Development and Strategic Planning Act of 2002 with two primary objectives: coordinating the effort to create a forest inventory on July 1, 2004, and creating a forestry economic development program within the Mississippi Development Authority.
• The governor had approved House Bill 866, which changed the composition of the Agricultural Aviation Board to provide a more balanced representation of pilots and non-pilots.
“We’d like to see country of origin labeling on all food products, but the two bills wor
their way through the House and the Senate are a good start,” said Spell. “They’re very important bills designed to protect agriculture.”
Spell said inadequate inspections of foreign