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Call for vigilance launches cotton, rice conservation conference

Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Susan Combs launched the sixth annual Cotton and Rice Conservation Tillage Conference in Houston by challenging farmers and ranchers to encourage officials to hold on to the “hard-fought farm bill” and to watch for other issues that could affect farms and rural America as legislatures get down to business this winter.

“Many interest groups are not happy with the farm bill,” she said. “The Environmental Working Group is one of the most visible.”

She said criticism comes largely from folks who don't understand the crucial role agriculture plays in the economy. “In Texas, agriculture exerts an $80 billion per year impact on the State's economy,” she said. “One-fifth of the population works in agriculture in one way or another. But only 1.9 percent of the state's population works directly in production agriculture.”

She said as state and the federal governments deal with budget deficits, farmers and ranchers must continue to communicate how important food and fiber production is to national security.

“The farm bill provides a safety net” for this essential part of Texas and our national society, she said.

Combs said the Texas legislature and the Congress will consider issues with potentially significant impact on farmers.

“The landlord tenant issue will be a huge one,” she said. Congress also will discuss trade issues.

“We need efforts on free trade, but we must be sure it's fair trade,” Combs said. “We're very interested in Cuba, for instance, as a great market for Texas rice.”

She said efforts with Mexican textile groups, similar to a sorghum agreement already in effect, could result in direct cotton trade from U.S. to Mexico.

Water continues to dominate Texas politics, Combs said.

“Tension is building between urban and rural users. To assure an ample supply for agricultural, industrial and consumer use, the state will have to find ways to use water more efficiently.”

Reduced tillage is among several practices she cited as part of a plan to save water in agriculture.

“Laser leveling, desalination, brush control, and drought and heat tolerant varieties will be important,” she said. “We have to be savvy consumers.”

Farmers who adopted reduced tillage systems early, 20 to 25 years ago, showed a bit of savvy of their own, said John LaRose, publisher of Conservation Tillage magazine and a co-sponsor of the annual Cotton and Rice Conservation Tillage Conference. He said early adopters made the switch primarily as conservation efforts.

“They were environmentalists,” he said. “Most of those who turned to reduced tillage early were looking for ways to improve their soils,” he said.

“Now, many continue to place a high emphasis on conservation, but they also see economic benefits from less tillage.”

LaRose said attendance at the 2003 event was close to 600, about the same as for last year's conference in Tunica, Miss. “But about one-third of our attendees were first-time participants,” he said.

The high number of first-timers indicates a new interest in the systems. “And they are looking for ways to save money. It's about economics. Frankly, I'm surprised that all farmers don't explore the possibilities of reduced tillage. Tradition holds some back.”

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