Texas Times: Continuing agriculture policies that work

U.S. Sen. John Cornyn Dec. 6, 2007, 10:49am

Five years ago, when commodity prices were low and the national economy was reeling, Congress approved a controversial major farm bill. The 2002 law shored up nutrition, conservation and commodity support programs, and brought benefits to rural and urban areas alike.

Now that legislation has expired. Because of gridlock in Washington, Congress has had difficulty approving a new farm bill. We need to get to work this month and get legislation to the President. Delays are already affecting planning decisions in South Texas and will soon be felt statewide.

The bill under consideration is similar to the 2002 version that has helped boost our national agricultural exports to record levels, nearly $80 billion this year. This economic stimulus is vital to our national economy at a time when the U.S. has a trade balance deficit that has helped weaken the U.S. dollar.

The proposed bill would continue substantial federal crop subsidies at a time when farm income is high. That concerns many legislators. But a safe, dependable domestic food supply is now linked with our national security, and the expanding world population depends on U.S. supply and technological advances.

There is now a national consensus on the necessity of maintaining a steady and predictable food supply, using a federal agricultural safety net. We can do it without encroaching on the traditional independence of our farmers and ranchers.

At the same time, two-thirds of the five-year, $288 billion price tag goes to nutrition programs for lower income Americans, including food stamps and subsidized school meals. In this year's bill, there's also a $5 billion annual disaster fund. That will replace annual emergency appropriations that are often loaded up with earmarks and Congressional pork.

The stakes in this bill are high for Texas. Nearly one in seven Texans still make their living in agriculture-related jobs. Texas leads the nation in the number of farms and ranches, the amount of land in production, and the number of cattle, horses, sheep and goats. We're among national leaders in a score of crops, and number one in cotton, wool, mohair and hay.

Over the last century, Texas agriculture has become vastly more efficient. Our pioneer settlers were largely self-sufficient. But the typical rancher or farmer now produces food or fiber for 129 people, here and abroad.

That efficiency means more land can now be devoted to protecting farmland for future generations. The 2007 bill increases funding for grasslands and wetlands reserve efforts that support a variety of natural habitats. That should please environmentalists and hunters alike.

Unfortunately, the bill was stalled last month in large part because the majority party refused to guarantee a full opportunity for consideration of amendments by individual Senators. Some of these amendments bear directly on agriculture policy, and deserve an up-or-down vote.

I have an important amendment, for example, that would make combating childhood obesity a priority in the largest Agriculture Department expenditure-the food stamp program. When we are spending $190 billion on nutrition, we have an obligation to ensure we are not pushing unhealthy diets on young people and increasing obesity-related health risks.

There are other problems with the bill that affect Texas. One provision would dramatically increase federal regulation of the livestock industry by prohibiting meat processors from owning or controlling stock until only a few days before slaughter.

Texas ranchers have worked hard to create some of the best stock our country has to offer, including the highly sought-after Santa Gertrudis breed. As a result, they often enter into contracts with feeders and processors earning higher prices. I do not believe the federal government should dictate how our ranchers can sell their products.

Even so, this farm bill promises continuity in a vital segment of our economy. Our recent farm policies have brought stability to Texas agriculture, lower prices to consumers, nutritional assistance to many, and vastly increased exports. We should continue that winning formula.

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