Editor’s note: In his annual report to the Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., annual meeting Executive Vice President Steve Verett encouraged the cotton industry to look beyond partisan politics to meet the challenges of maintaining reasonable and responsible farm policy. Below are Verett’s remarks.
I know I do not have to remind any of you of the difficult task in completing passage of the 2014 Farm Bill, and the circumstances that dictated cotton not looking like the rest of the traditional program crops. I appreciate our speakers today expounding on that and other important topics, but I ask that you to indulge me over the next few minutes while I share some of my thoughts as to the predicament we in agriculture find ourselves in today in trying to maintain reasonable and responsible farm policy for the good of our industry and the economy of our region, state and nation. My comments are not meant to be partisan, as I believe there is more than enough criticism for both sides of the aisle to go around. My hope is that my comments will help us all to be more reflective of the reality of the challenges we face, but also offer a hope of success if we are all willing to help do our part.
First, we have an increasingly balkanized politic in this country, with Democrats and liberals increasingly becoming synonymous with urban and Republicans and conservatives increasingly becoming synonymous with rural. That means that the bipartisan nature of farm policy is in peril. It already heavily depends on an alliance with Food Stamps. However, because Republicans reflexively do not like Food Stamps, Democrats reply in kind against farm policy.
Second, although agriculture is an important part of the rural economy and in some places the only game in town, many conservative Republicans who represent much of rural America come to Washington without a strong feel for the agricultural nature of their economy back home because their background is not in agriculture and in any event come to town with the conviction that government has no role in fostering agriculture because it costs money, it interferes with the free market, and it is extra-constitutional. These views have resonance, perhaps even the greatest resonance, in rural America. It’s not till people are introduced to the deeper implications that they gain a respect for farm policy’s importance, not least of which is the extent to which foreign governments plough money and protections into their agriculture sector to the detriment of ours. In any event, the first two considerations mean that fewer and fewer Democrats feel they have a stake in farm policy beyond Food Stamps and Republicans are split, with most Republicans first gaining an appreciation of agriculture thousands of miles from their home in Washington.
Urbanization of America
Third, the country is simply becoming more urban, and suburban, with only about 34 House seats that are 50 percent or more rural and another 125 that are 25 percent or more rural. This means that naturally fewer Members of either party sees agriculture as key to their districts.
Fourth, we have an enormous federal debt and we will see annual deficits approaching $1 trillion within the next decade with policymakers very risk averse, not easily cutting things especially with huge or important constituencies. With defense, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, veterans, and interest on the debt accounting for about 87 percent of the total federal budget, it’s slim pickings achieving real deficit reduction without touching any of those live wires. That constantly puts agriculture in the crosshairs no matter that agriculture makes up just three tenths of 1 percent if looking at just the commodity title and crop insurance.
Fifth, we have opponents who are very well funded who have a conviction that U.S. farm policy is bad and must be totally eliminated. The left feels strongly that agricultural practices and policies that promote it are destroying the environment, cruel to animals, and harmful to human health. The right feels as strongly that the Constitution does not provide for a farm policy; the government cannot afford it no matter how small its expenditures may be compared to other spending, and it gets in the way of liberalized trade, which is good for other sectors of the economy that are more appealing to them. To these groups, agriculture is as difficult to bridge differences over as the most divisive social issues. It is an article of faith for them. Fortunately, not a ton of Members of Congress take it to this level, though an increasing number do. These forces helped make floor consideration of the Farm Bill in the House extremely tricky by negatively “scoring” not just a vote for final passage but votes on amendments. The result for many conservative members who supported the Farm Bill is they received zero ratings from organizations like Heritage Action while very liberal members received 100 percent ratings. This is a zealotry that seems disproportionately aimed and hung up on farm policy.
Sixth, politics is more expensive than ever. A congressman or senator can build up a reputation over a lifetime and have it all undone in a week or two’s worth of paid ads against him or her. This has members constantly trying to raise money. Members are like anyone else: When we see a neighbor always there to lend a hand we tend to want to be there for that neighbor. We build up a relationship, a trust. Well, the same is true in this case. Agriculture can never hope to rival the amount of money being spent out there, but agriculture can do its part to keep the campaign lights on and to show support for friends. Members generally appreciate this. Political events offer an opportunity for relationship building, a chance for members and groups to learn about one another, and just an important introduction to us and the issues we care about. Perhaps the most important hour spent in the day is in this context where attention is relatively undivided.
Splintered farm community
Seventh, the farm community remains splintered over various and sundry issues, whether North vs. South, row crops vs specialty crops, livestock vs crops, farm group vs farm group, agriculture issues vs nutrition or conservation issues, and on and on. The situation seems incurable, although the differences often seem pretty small and unnecessary. Building bridges to members in other parts of the country removes the horns from our head that maybe others want to paint on us with their members to enhance their position over ours. All of us being involved politically in support of friendly members from other regions of the country helps members see us as real people with concerns much like the concerns of his or her own producers.
Eighth, aside from PAC activity, the makeup of those involved in grassroots partisan politics has changed a lot over the last 20 years, with the party faithful of each party comprised more and more of activists, often from the hardest edges. By all of us becoming more involved in local and state party politics, we can help enhance the interest of the party in the concerns of ordinary Americans working hard to support their families and make ends meet, including concern for strong farm policy.
Finally, given the ever-polarizing political divide, it is increasingly difficult to get things done in Washington. This is not necessarily a bad thing when the burden is not upon us to help pass legislation but mainly just to defend. However, it is excruciating when we do have a burden to help move legislation. Even the most must-pass of must-pass legislation has found itself stalled. Involving ourselves politically can help raise our profile and our issue and its importance.
All of this speaks to the very real need to be active and involved. PCG has an outstanding record of achievements that no one can deny, and most is due to the involvement of its volunteer leaders. PCG needs that active volunteer involvement now more than ever as we continue to address the very real challenges and threats that lie ahead. The leadership, staff and board of Plains Cotton Growers over the next few months will be exploring ways as to how our industry can be more effective in conveying our issues and concerns, so I urge each member gin to continue having an active PCG board member in place as we consider our path forward. While some may believe things can’t get worse on the legislative and political front, I assure you that is not the case. We still have big challenges ahead and could really use all hands on deck as we continue to work for the issues that are most important to this cotton industry.
Thanks for giving me the time to share these thoughts. It is an honor to work alongside each of you for the betterment of our cotton industry.
In closing, my prayers and hope are for favorable weather and blessings from our heavenly Father, safety for all and bountiful crop this year.