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COLUMN: Costly harvests

Driving through the Delta, I was reminded of a thought that came to me during last spring's farm bill debate: Sen. Charles Grassley, Ken Cook and the editorial writers for the New York and Washington newspapers need to spend a day here during cotton harvest.

My drive was on a Friday, the day before another front was expected to bring more rain to the Delta. Cotton pickers were rolling through nearly white fields, racing to get cotton in the module before the weather took another toll on grades and yield.

Several fields had four and five pickers with boll buggies scurrying back and forth taking cotton to the module builders. A conservative guess would put the equipment investment in some at more than a million dollars.

That's what Grassley of the Grassley-Dorgan payment limit amendment; Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group; and the New York Times and Washington Post writers need to see — the investment that it takes to keep a modern-day farming operation operating in a fall like this.

I don't know the operators of the farms I passed on U.S. Highway 61 from Clarksdale to Tunica, Miss., but I suspect most would not be considered large farmers. Certainly, they would not be the "big, corporate farmers" that Cook has pilloried on the EWG's Website.

If I could sit down with them, I expect most would say they never expected to become "big" or to have all that money invested in iron. The economics of cotton production forced them to keep adding land and equipment to spread their costs as much as possible.

I also thought about the losses many of those and other growers across the Mid-South will incur because of the yield and quality already hit by two tropical storms and three other fronts that have hit the region.

What had been most promising has turned into a so-so to poor crop because of the 20 or more inches of rain and accompanying wind from those storms. The Delta Council quotes economists and crop specialists as saying the region's farmers could lose $155 million due to yield and quality losses.

Congressional leaders keep saying they understand the severity of the drought and storm losses across the farm belt, but it would be difficult to prove that given the speed at which the House adjourned on Oct. 17 without taking up disaster assistance legislation.

As of Sept. 26, the National Farmers Union noted, 55.1 percent of U.S. counties were declared disasters by the secretary of agriculture. In 2001, 48.6 percent of U.S. counties were declared disasters. Disasters were declared in nearly 30 percent of all counties in both years, according to USDA.

Although the Senate has passed disaster assistance legislation three times, House leaders have yet to schedule hearings or votes on any of the bills that have been introduced by various members.

Maybe we should add House Speaker Dennis Hastert, Majority Leader Dick Armey, Majority Whip Tom DeLay and White House Office of Management and Budget Director Mitch Daniels, the most outspoken administration official on disaster assistance, to the list at the top of this column.


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