Kenneth Hood agrees that it isn't much fun being a cotton or rice farmer and hearing or seeing yourself criticized on the NBC Nightly News or in newspapers like the Washington Post and New York Times.
Hood should know, having recently been the subject of a Wall Street Journal article that pilloried him and other U.S. cotton farmers for supposedly bringing economic hardship to cotton growers in Mali.
But Hood, the chairman of the National Cotton Council, says he isn't sure what more the Council can do to respond to the criticism than it is already doing without being prepared to spend millions of dollars on a public relations campaign that may or not improve the public's perceptions of farm programs.
“Because the criticism is both constant and unfair in its characterization of the program, and because the cotton industry is more often than not the focal point for the criticism, some people are telling me the Council isn't doing enough to counter the way we're being maligned,” he said.
“I've also been told that the Council isn't doing enough to protect against payment limits. These critics of the Council's efforts will go on to say that “we have to change the public's attitudes about farm programs.”
Speaking at a meeting of the NCC's American Cotton Producers and The Cotton Foundation in Atlanta, Hood said that most farmers would like to see public attitudes become more “farmer friendly and farm-program friendly.
“By any reasonable assessment, though, the task of attitude changes is monumental, enormously expensive and long-term in nature,” he noted. “It's a result that we've sought for a long time, but it's not a result the cotton industry can achieve by itself. The Agricultural Council of America was created many years ago to achieve this goal, but it never mustered the resources to make a real difference.”
The crux of the issue for the Council, he said, is “finding a way to make the public feel good about six and seven-figure payments to farmers. What's more, except for our friends in the rice industry, we have trouble mustering much sympathy even from the rest of agriculture. Most grain farmers simply don't need as big a payment as we do to make ends meet.”
Hood said the council's board of directors recently brought in a consultant to discuss its media predicament and to consider options for addressing it.
“He agreed that changing public attitudes should be considered as a long-term objective and should not be undertaken without a commitment of substantial resources,” said Hood. “He noted that the plastics industry had spent more than $20 million a year for several years in their successful effort to influence public attitudes.”
Hood said the consultant did outline a shorter term, more narrowly focused approach that might deliver some results, but said it would need to be funded at $500,000 per year.
While other farm groups have not committed to participate in such a program, they have signed letters supporting the new farm bill and agreeing to coordinate their efforts to defend it against continued attacks, he said.
At a meeting requested by the National Corn Growers Association, representatives of the NCC and other member groups of the Commodity Roundtable met with Sens. Pat Roberts of Kansas and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
“While they were surprised to hear from commodity groups other than cotton and rice on the payment limits issue, they are still hearing from constituents urging more stringent payment limits,” said Hood. “It was also obvious that using the savings from payment limits to pay for disaster assistance was an option that some Midwest senators have not ruled out.”
Although it may not be much fun to be on the receiving end of so much condemnation, Hood said he would still rather be defending the Cotton Council for not stopping the criticism than for not getting a new farm bill.
“We were successful in getting enough votes to pass the farm bill in spite of public opinion that was poisoned by Environmental Working Group Web-site data and the bad publicity it spawned. Now we have to find the votes to fight off the payment limit amendments that would absolutely gut the program for the cotton industry.”
He told the producers and Cotton Foundation members that his comments should not be interpreted as complacency about responding to the bad press.
“We've responded to it with guest editorials, letters to the editors, distribution of fact sheets for use by our members, by posting critiques on our Web site and by encouraging other commodity and general farm organizations to join in the fight and by participating in a press conference to help generate better understanding,” Hood noted.
“I think we should respond, we have responded and we will continue to respond. My point is that we should not expect our responses to have life-changing impact on our critics.”
The Gunnison, Miss., producer said he expects the Cotton Council will have to “fight and win the payment limit battle many times before public opinion could ever be altered.”