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Rice leaders seek equal treatment

The USA Rice Federation is calling on members of a House-Senate conference committee for the 2002 farm bill to make sure the legislation has an effective safety net for all producers.

In a carefully worded statement, the Federation thanked rice-state senators for the work they did to modify the Harkin bill passed by the Senate on Feb. 13. But it added that the significant reduction in payment limitations added to the bill is a major concern for U.S. rice producers.

“Critical for rice farmers will be retaining full access to the marketing loan program under current law, achieving equal payment limits for husband and wife, retaining the three entity rule, and striking the 1,000 hours of labor and active personal management qualifier,” said Don Bransford, a California rice farmer who chairs the U.S. Rice Producers' Group, the rice federation's farmer-advocacy arm. Bransford also chairs USA Rice's Government Affairs Committee whose producer and miller representatives support the four priorities.

More than 100 rice producer and miller members of USA Rice from Arkansas, California, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas were in Washington when the Senate voted. Delegations headed to Capitol Hill to meet with rice-state and non-rice state senators and representatives seeking support for action on a farm bill and opposition to the Grassley payment limitation amendment.

“We pressed hard on payment limitations and appreciate the hard work of Southern senators, the National Cotton Council, American Farm Bureau Federation and Ducks Unlimited to oppose the Grassley amendment,” said Paul “Jackie” Loewer Jr., a Louisiana rice farmer and vice chairman of the U.S. Rice Producers' Group.

“Now it all comes down to what happens in conference, and we've got to keep weighing in.”

The objective of U.S. food policy — to insure Americans an abundant supply of affordable, high-quality food and fiber — has recently become clouded in inaccurate portrayals of large family farms and farmer-owned cooperatives receiving large payments from farm programs, without taking into account the cost of production or net income from agriculture, rice producer leaders contend.

In 1999, commercial family farms represented 31 percent of total acres operated, and they produced two-thirds of the value of total agricultural output, according to USDA. Farm programs provide a safety net to compensate producers when market prices fall below established levels.

“As the safety net is tied to production, it is hardly surprising that these operations receive a larger share of program benefits,” Loewer said. “If payment limitations are more restrictive, more than two-thirds of the affordable food supply is at risk.”

Farmers expand to achieve economy of scale and to be competitive in domestic and international markets, said Gary Sebree, an Arkansas rice farmer who chairs the Arkansas Rice Producers' Group. “Rice farming is more often than not a family operation, although now that's often the entire family or the extended family engaged in a commercial family farm because that's what it takes to stay in business. Farmers shouldn't be penalized for producing efficiently.”

Farm bill conferees should keep American consumers as well as farmers in the forefront, said Paul Combs, who chairs the Missouri Rice Producers' Group. “We can't afford to jeopardize domestic agricultural production and become dependent on imported food. So it follows that one of the primary objectives of new farm legislation must be to improve the financial safety net available to farmers, which could also eliminate the need for annual emergency assistance packages.”

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