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USA Rice signs up Combest as farm bill consultant

If anyone had any doubts about how seriously commodity organizations are taking the 2007 farm bill, the USA Rice Federation pretty well removed those the other day.

USA Rice President and CEO Stuart Proctor confirmed the Federation has reached an exclusive agreement with former Congressman Larry Combest to represent the U.S. rice industry in the farm bill debate.

Combest, who, along with former Congressman Charlie Stenholm, is considered to be the principal author of the 2002 farm bill, began working with the USA Rice staff in Arlington, Va., Feb. 1.

Earlier, Proctor told about 400 members of the Louisiana Rice Council and the Louisiana Rice Growers Association at their annual meeting in Crowley that the “No. 1 priority for the USA Rice Federation is the 2007 farm bill.”

Proctor listed the Federation's latest activities as it ramps up for the farm bill, including hiring outside consultants/lobbyists to supplement the Federation's farm bill efforts and WTO rice negotiations. It has also hired a second staff lobbyist to assist with the farm bill, opened a satellite office on Capitol Hill and is conducting congressional staff tours.

Some rice producers were unhappy with the Federation's lobbying efforts, specifically on the rice loan rate, in 2002, and USA Rice leaders appear determined to make sure history doesn't repeat.

Many row crop farmers would be happy if Combest were still chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and Stenholm, the ranking member. Combest, a former USDA ASCS employee, and Stenholm, a farmer, had a deep understanding of the farm problems in their old districts on the Texas Plains.

But Combest decided to retire after he wrangled the 2002 farm bill out of Congress despite the opposition of the White House and Senate Democrats. Stenholm was forced out after former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay engineered a redistricting effort in Texas.

Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the ranking member on the House Agriculture Committee, made a “get-acquainted” swing through Arkansas and Louisiana last month. Last fall, he introduced a bill extending the 2002 law if the Doha Round negotiations are not completed on time.

Rep. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., chairman of the House General Farm Commodities Subcommittee, has made trips to Mississippi and Arkansas. But he and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte of Virginia frequently seem more willing to toe the administration line than Combest or Stenholm.

In a speech to the American Sugar Beet Growers Association last month, Combest said a farm bill extension is a possibility if the Doha Round talks continue to flounder. But such a move would require a push from the agricultural community, he noted. The WTO negotiations are “on life support at best,” he said, and the United States should not disarm. Keeping the current farm bill will provide the “best leverage for trade negotiations.”

Goodlatte and Peterson were scheduled to hold the Agriculture Committee's first farm bill hearings — in Fayetteville, N.C., Feb. 6, and Auburn, Ala., Feb. 7. Let the games begin.

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