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Sen. Blanche Lincoln: New farm bill will be first battle in long war

Rice producers should think of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 as the first battle in a long war, according to Sen. Blanche L. Lincoln, D-Ark. This “war” could extend over a generation of farmers.

Lincoln, speaking at the 2002 USA Rice Outlook Conference in Little Rock, said the current farm bill “is definitely not a work of art. It's a work in progress.”

The next few years will be challenging ones for agricultural legislation, according to Lincoln. “It will require patience, commitment and optimism that we will be able to persevere,” she said. “My goal — and yours — is to build a strong agricultural sector based on a strong federal policy that allows our farmers to do more than simply survive. We want to prosper. We want to be productive.”

Coming battles will take place on a number of fronts, according to Lincoln, including trade. “We must continue to push our trade competitors to give up their subsidies and open their markets.

“And I will continue to fight for estate tax relief for farmers and small businesses. Not only does it make good economic sense, but it's the only fair thing to do.”

Payment limitations “will hit us again somewhere down the road,” Lincoln said. If the issue doesn't come up on the fiscal year 2003 appropriations bill, “then they will likely come up during the debate on the spending bill for 2004.”

Among disappointments in the final 2002 bill was that it did not include the higher target price for rice “that we had fought so hard for,” Lincoln said.

Lincoln stressed that despite the shortcomings of the bill, agriculture shouldn't lose sight of what it accomplished.

For example, the farm bill “survived a tough fight with organized opposition from East Coast media outlets and (the Environmental Working Group) attempting to derail all of our hard work. We had to fend off the payment limitation fiasco from the beginning, not only because I thought it was unfair, but also because it gave us a black eye.”

Undoubtedly, Lincoln and other legislators still have quite a few hurdles to overcome, including “the difficulty of educating our colleagues in Congress about how important agriculture legislation is.

“One of my biggest challenges in the Congress is to make sure that my colleagues understand that (rice producers) grow a capital-intensive crop. Our costs are phenomenal compared to what Midwesterners spend.

“Another reason why we were so desperate to get the farm bill passed in a timely way was because we knew that with the kind of federal deficits we were facing in the future, we would have gotten far less money (had we waited).”

Congress overcome those challenges, noted Lincoln. “We strengthened the level of direct payment above the phase-out level of the old Freedom to Farm Act and created a strong safety net with the use of counter-cyclical and target prices as a support mechanism.

“There is still a lot of work ahead of us. It's going to be very challenging.” Lincoln added. “The problems facing agriculture cannot be solved in a day, or in a year. It may not even be solved in one generation.”

e-mail: [email protected].

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