Already a member of the House Agriculture Committee, Arkansas Rep. Rick Crawford will also chair the General Farm Commodities and Risk Management Subcommittee.
“I’ll be focusing on oversight this year, making sure the USDA is going through (farm bill) rule implementation with the proper interpretation of Congressional intent,” says Crawford. “Currently, you have to give the USDA pretty high marks on that for the most part.
“But we have to make sure we make contact with (USDA officials) frequently, are being briefed on progress. Where we run into problems, we must have appropriate dialogue to ensure the farm bill is being implemented.”
The new farm bill, says Crawford, is the most complex in his lifetime. “Implementation, as we’ve seen, won’t be a quick process, it won’t be easy. It’ll require a lot from both Congress and the agency to make sure it’s done right.”
Crop insurance hasn’t historically been terribly friendly to the Mid-South. How does Crawford think the new farm bill’s emphasis on such insurance might play out in the region?
“You hit it right on the head. The uptake on crop insurance in our geography hasn’t been anywhere close to what it’s been farther north.
“There’s a reason for that. Colloquially, we’ve always said our crop insurance is irrigation. We have those resources at our disposal, typically, in pretty good supply for the most part. That’s a large reason there’s been a resistance to buying crop insurance.
“But we’ve lost direct payments. There were only a couple of (lawmakers) left standing fighting for those and I was one of them.”
In the absence of direct payments farmers needed something to fill the gap. “Well, the policies that were implemented -- Price Loss Coverage (PLC) and Ag Risk Coverage -- sound like insurance products but they’re not. Those are FSA programs that producers can opt into. If you don’t opt into one or the other, based on geography, you’ll be placed by default into, probably, the PLC program.
“The PLC will work fine for rice. In fact, the PLC was developed largely in concert with the rice industry. I think it’s a good model for that crop. The reference price -- $14 per hundredweight – is set well.”
Crawford is careful to note these programs are not designed to be a profit center for farmers. “But they will make sure they have a safety net and recourse to help prevent them from going out of business. I hope everyone recognizes what these programs are for, how they’re designed, and who was at the table when they were being constructed.
“With crop insurance, you’re still going to be able to buy up supplemental coverage. Depending on where you’re at and what your costs are, that supplemental coverage will be attractive.”
The STAX program -- shallow loss for cotton -- is a bit different. “We’re still in a transition period for that crop. I suspect that because the cotton industry was so involved with the program’s development that producers will be okay with it.
“We’re on the front edge of this farm bill and it’s too soon to prognosticate on how effective it will be.”
Crawford recently spoke with a farmer unhappy with “how things were going and was skeptical of the new farm bill. I asked if he’d been to one of the farm bill seminars and he said ‘no.’
“In Arkansas, we have at least three or four different agencies that have presented farm bill seminars. You need to take the time to attend one of those. It’s in your own interest and you’ll find that these programs are very customizable to your operation. There’s a learning curve, no doubt, and the seminars will help you make plans.
“I also encourage patience with FSA offices. They’ve been handed all these new programs just like the farmers have.”
What about the potential for Cuba opening up to U.S. agricultural trade? With the first round of talks having just ended between the White House and Cuban officials how does Crawford see the issue playing on the Hill?
“I can’t speculate on how quickly this will move. I will say that the Cuban trade issue isn’t a partisan issue. It’s largely geographic as much as anything. I totally understand those who are hesitant with dealing with Cuba.
“My thing is – and I’ve said it before – I’m for trade with Cuba. They can get a shipment of rice from Vietnam in 36 days or get a shipment of U.S. rice in 36 hours. It makes sense for us to capitalize on that market.”
The Cuba trade embargo is a vestige of the Cold War. “Listen, we’re trading with Communist China which has some of the most egregious human rights violations in the world. We fought a hot war with Vietnam for a decade and yet we’re now trading with them. We’re trading with the former Soviet Union after 50 years of Cold War.
“My problem with this isn’t with Cuban trade it’s with the protocol used to bring this about. It was completely wrong in my opinion. There was no consultation with Congress. There will be some problems with trying to make this happen quickly.
“What will the conditions be for how to pay for this? That’s been an issue in the past. Will we allow for agricultural goods on a cash-and-carry basis without any financing?”
Crawford points out there are a great number of European countries as well as Canada are already working and trading in Cuba. “We’re giving away that market share. And it may not be a huge market but it’s a close market that would allow us to capitalize. But, again, we need to do it right and observe the proper protocols, make sure Congress is kept in the loop.”
Trade promotion authority
During his recent State of the Union, President Obama called for Congress to provide him with trade promotion authority so that major deals can be struck quickly. Is Crawford in favor of providing that authority?
“If we can make these deals it will be a huge boon to U.S. agriculture. There are some cultural sensitivities that always arise when doing these deals. Consider the South Korea deal and what happened with U.S. rice exports (being shut out). It’s worth saying: thank you to the U.S. rice industry for taking one for the team. They recognized that the trade deal needed to get done and didn’t raise a big stink knowing that it would lead to the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP).
“Agriculture is always one of the most sensitive factors in these trade deals. We stand to benefit greatly by opening up these markets.
“And I want fair trade. People tend to use ‘free’ and ‘fair’ trade interchangeably but they aren’t the same thing. I want our farmers to have a fair deal.”
Crawford says the importance of the deals cannot be overstated. “I’ve always supported (trade promotion authority for the President). I don’t think we need to worry about the occupant of the White House as much as we need to worry that the occupant is able to close these trade deals quickly. The longer they linger and languish the greater the likelihood they won’t be signed and closed.”
EPA proposed rule
Asked about the status of the EPA’s proposed Waterways of the U.S. rule, Crawford remains adamant the rule is a bad idea. “I think Congress will move quickly on that because (of the new Republican) majority in the Senate. I think there’s a realistic opportunity to move it in both chambers.
“We’re going to stand in the way of it as much as possible to limit what the (Obama) administration can do. Waterways of the U.S. is a terrible rule and would create huge compliance and regulatory burdens for farmers across the country.
“Frankly, as most of these regulatory regimes do, it would be borne out in the marketplace and consumers will pay. Farmers aren’t in a position to pass on a lot of those costs. Some may even go out of business if they can’t cash flow.”
Ultimately, though, Crawford insists adopting the rule would put the U.S. food supply in jeopardy. “In the big picture, we need to make sure our food supply is sustainable and we don’t have to rely on foreign sources. It’s a national security imperative that we maintain an affordable, safe and abundant food supply.”