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Journal writers report more than they know

John Pecheu may have come off a little better in the latest Wall Street Journal article on the U.S. cotton program and African farmers. But it's not a distinction the California producer relishes.

Unlike Kenneth Hood, the former National Cotton Council chairman who was the centerpiece of an earlier WSJ piece, Pecheu is mentioned only sparingly in the Aug. 5 article, “By a Thread: To Soothe Anger Over Subsidies, U.S. Cotton Tries Wooing Africa.”

Instead, the U.S. cotton industry is painted as grasping at ways to get African farmers to back off from attempts to eviscerate the U.S. cotton program. That's just one of the fallacies of the reporting.

The article opens with an account of a visit last January by Deputy Undersecretary of Agriculture Jim Butler and Pecheu to a village in Mali, one of four African countries that have become poster children for Oxfam's campaign against U.S. cotton.

The authors note Butler gave the village headman an embossed paperweight although he doesn't have a desk and try to link that to Pecheu's 3,500-acre farm. But the comparison makes it appear the authors are grasping at straws.

On a trip to Argentina years ago, I listened while American soybean farmers gave their host unsolicited advice on a weed problem. That might seem odd to someone in other industries, but I've seen the scenario repeated numerous times.

While U.S. growers may get annoyed with institutions like the WTO, they are unfailingly generous with other farmers. Trying to portray such altruism as deceit shows a lack of understanding of U.S. farmers.

The more glaring gap in the article concerns a statement that Mali growers received 18 cents per pound for their cotton last year but the state-owned cotton trading enterprise lost $50 million. The loss reportedly forced the government to lower its price to 14 cents this year.

How can you lose $50 million while buying handpicked cotton at 30 cents a pound below the world market? Does it cost 30 cents a pound to ship the cotton to China and Pakistan, the African countries' primary markets?

We won't know from this article because the authors fail to explore the discrepancy, repeating the West Africans claim that their cotton industries are harmed by America's “price-depressing subsidies.”

The authors may not have been around long enough to know that situations like that in Mali brought about today's U.S. subsidies. The 1985 marketing loan was a direct response to merchants in places like Africa undercutting U.S. prices because they could pay their producers whatever they wanted.

Fortunately, the U.S. Congress has had a higher regard for the value of agriculture and U.S. producers than the bureaucrats in Africa who don't seem to care whether their farmers earn a living wage.

When I spoke to Pecheu, he chuckled about the article, but his mood quickly turned somber. “We've got to find a way to help the public understand the truth about this issue.”

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