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Grassroots approach

It's not uncommon for farm organizations to band together when confronted with a troublesome issue and send letters to members of Congress, urging them to defeat or pass or water down a piece of legislation.

Ordinarily, the group whose ox is being gored the most writes the letter and asks other organizations to sign it. Unless it violates their policies, the latter are happy to do so because they never know when they'll need someone to sign one of theirs.

That made a letter put together by the National Cotton Council all the more unusual. The Council asked 25 of its members to write what it dubbed “a letter from our farm family” to the chairmen and ranking members of the House Agriculture and Appropriations Committees.

Council leaders felt the grass roots letter from the farmers — all members of family farming operations — was needed to help counter the drubbing the cotton industry and U.S. agriculture took during President Bush's trip to Africa.

In a classic case of the law of unintended consequences, the president's trip gave the national media an excuse to resurrect last year's articles on the damage supposedly being inflicted on Africa's cotton farmers by U.S. farm programs.

The president tried to deflect the heat by citing the massive subsidies provided farmers in Europe and Japan and urging those governments to reciprocate the reductions already made in subsidies paid to U.S. growers.

But his comments were lost in the flurry of reports accusing U.S. farmers of contributing to the impoverishment of growers in the cotton-producing countries of West Africa.

The New York Times even invited the presidents of Mali and Burkina Faso to write an op-ed article complaining that agricultural subsidies granted by rich nations to their cotton producers were threatening the vital cotton-producing sectors of their countries.

“Not only is cotton crucial to our economies,” they wrote, “It is the sole agricultural product for our countries to trade. Although African cotton is of the highest quality, our production costs are about 50 percent lower than in developing countries even though we rely on manual labor.”

The article characterized cotton produced in wealthier countries as lower quality, produced on large mechanized farms that generate little employment and have a questionable impact on the environment. “Cotton there could be replaced by other, more valuable crops,” it said.

The authors failed to mention they could better provide for their people if those farmers switched to lower-cost food crops rather than growing cotton for export profits that probably find a way into their pockets. But that's another issue.

All this came as the House prepared to debate the fiscal 2004 agricultural appropriations bill, which some see as a prime vehicle for amendments on tighter payment limits or reductions in farm program spending.

Such amendments may take all of the parliamentary maneuvering that cotton-state representatives have become famous if the one-year-old farm bill is to remain unchanged. The family farmer letter was a good opening salvo.

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