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Farm bill testimony a blueprint for Southeast

With apologies to any red-headed stepchildren who might be reading, Southeastern farmers know they’ve always been treated like one whenever the time rolls around for crafting a new farm bill.

During a swing through Southeastern states, the U.S. House Agriculture Committee recently held hearings that mark the official beginning of the farm bill marathon, those seemingly endless proceedings that will culminate with a finished piece of legislation, sometime in 2012 if all goes as planned.

As expected, the farmers and commodity group representatives speaking at the hearings held in Alabama and Georgia were eloquent, impassioned and informed. Of course, you probably didn’t read much if anything in the national media about the testimony because, in the eyes of the popular press, these were not officially “farm state” spokesmen, which takes us back to our original premise, that the Southeast gets little respect when it comes to establishing national agricultural policy.

Most of the producers and others who testified emphasized the importance of maintaining an adequate safety net for farmers, especially at a time when huge federal deficits are forcing Congress to think in terms of cutting federal programs.

One testimony that particularly stood out to me, and that possibly offers a blueprint on how the Southeast should approach this next farm bill, was made by Scott Angle, dean and director of the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences.

Angle reminded the Congressmen of the prediction that the world will need to double its food production by the year 2050 to keep pace with population growth. The problem being that many areas of the world can’t or won’t respond to this challenge. Asia is limited by poor soils and limited rainfall, Africa is besieged by political instability, South and Central America have environmental concerns, and social policies will cause food production to stagnate in Europe.

That leaves North America as the last, best hope. But even here, explained Angle, there are limitations. Water availability is declining in the West, and it’s estimated there will be less food produced west of the Rockies 10 years from now than is produced there today. In the northern U.S. temperature and sunlight will limit the amount of “new” food that will be produced.

So this then leaves the Southeast U.S., “the primary area where production must and will increase,” says Angle.

“This is not just an obligation; it is an opportunity as well,” testified Angle. “In 2007, the U.S. imported $79 billion of food, feed and fiber while we exported $116 billion of the same. We have the opportunity to widen this surplus even more. As noted, the Southeast is especially well positioned for increased production. The Port of Savannah and an efficient transportation infrastructure make this is an ideal region for growth.”

Angle further pointed out that past federal policies have not always focused on Southeastern agriculture. “However, with the need for this region to step up production, we must have good policies coming from the new farm bill that will allow this region to meet the challenge and obligation to produce more food for the rest of the world.”

Congress has a choice, said Angle — federal policy can either promote production in the Southeast, allowing this need to be met, or it can limit production, forcing more of the world’s poor to continue to go hungry.

But the only way the Southeast can increase food production is through science and technology, and through public funding for this science and technology, says Angle. “Yet, science and technology development in agriculture is unlike any other industry. Boeing Corporation and the Ford Motor Company have in-house research and development capabilities as well as training. They have all the needed support for future innovation. Agriculture, however, is different.”

It sounds, to me, like a perfectly rational argument — with the Southeast being in a unique position in the United States of being capable of increasing agricultural production, it would behoove Congress to encourage and help fund this potential. It might mean waging a war of sorts with the “farm states,” but it also might be a means of survival.


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