(Town Crier photo/Revis Blaylock)
The forum was sponsored by the Blytheville-Gosnell Area Chamber of Commerce and the Mississippi County Farm Bureau. Also participating in the event were members of the Mississippi County Youth Leadership program, a county-wide program sponsored by the county Cooperative program. High School students participating were Katrina Johnson of Birdsong, Amanda Kouri of Osceola, Leslie Hopper of Armorel and Perry Dixon of Blytheville.
Veach welcomed everyone.
"We're here today to talk about the farm," Veach said.
He thanked Rep. Berry, and Senators Lincoln and Hutchinson for their hard work on getting a farm bill passed in 2001.
"The House had a good bill and these three put forth a great effort to get it passed, but it did not happen. Agriculture is going through its fourth year in a row of record-low prices," Veach said. "Mississippi County is the largest row-crop county in America and even with good and sometimes record-high production, we have lost 25 percent of our good farmers last year. Even with the good crop last year, we may loose more.
"The present farm bill is not working. We need a good farm bill."
Veach said farmers need fixed decoupled payments; a higher loan rate for crops; continuance of the loan deficiency payment program and countercyclical payments as a safety net when prices fall as low as they have in the past year.
"We need to open markets and have fewer trade restrictions," Veach said.
He commented that the high value of the dollar has cost markets and hurting the agricultural community.
Sen. Hutchison commented that 25 percent of all Arkansas's income is directly connected to agriculture.
"It would be hard to project what the ripple effect of agriculture is on the rest of the economy. In Arkansas, agriculture and the economy are one of the same," Hutchinson said. "We can't ignore agriculture. If agriculture dies, East Arkansas dies."
Hutchison went on to say that he thinks the American people get a bargain. Our farmers feed the American people and one half of the world. We were deeply disappointed on the failure to pass a farm bill. The bill we are operating under is a bad bill and it doesn't make sense to prolong it."
All three legislators agreed that the fight for farm legislation of any kind is getting harder because of lack of rural representation in the Legislature.
Sen. Lincoln called farming a wonderful heritage and one that had to be preserved for the future.
"We are fighting for is the very fabric of our rural economy and our way of life.That drives me," she said. Berry is a farmer and I am a farmer's daughter. Berry has done a great job. He has first hand knowledge of farming. Sen. Hutchison has hung in there with us for the things that are good for Arkansas."
"The freedom to Farm is a failed policy," Lincoln said. "I voted against it in 1996 because it does not provide the benefits that farmers needed. It gave you flexibility, but it did not provide the sustainability or the predictability of where the government would be for you in lean times. It is ridiculous to expect farmers to operate on 1940 prices and pay 21st Century expenses."
"We are in hard-ball politics in farm bill and farm policy in this country," U.S. Rep. Berry said. "Those people that passed Freedom to Farm and those people who want to end farm policy are still there."
He said that when the House bill passed, an amendment was offered that would have killed the bill. It would have made farmers max out with 200 acres of soybeans.
"You know what that would be worth in Mississippi County. Ducks Unlimited pulled out all stops to pass that amendment," he said. "We defeated it with 20 votes and we had to really suck it up to get those 20. You need to know who your friends are in this issue. The EPA has proposed "zero spray tolerance and zero drift" in making pesticide and other chemical applications. Think about that a minute. You can't spray anything. You can't use a three-gallon sprayer with zero drift."
Berry explained that although an expansion in trade is vital to the farming community, he voted against the Trade Promotion Authority bill because a farm bill had not yet been passed. He said you can't get any kind of trade deal without a good farm bill.
The program was opened for questions on farm policy. Tim Beasley of Jonesboro asked what the chances are of getting Sen. Trent Lott, R-Mississippi, on board in the effort to pass a farm bill.
"I don't know how he could go home for Christmas," Hutchinson said. "He just got re-elected, and he had a long term. Maybe he thought he could stand the heat."
Hutchinson said the Republican senators seem to be getting the signal from the Bush Administration through Agriculture Secretary Ann Venemen not to allow passage of the farm bill in 2001.
"I think that has changed," Hutchinson said. "After the final failed vote for cloture on discussion of the farm bill, I met with Venemen to confirm the $73,5 billion included in the administration budget would not be reduced in 2002. I asked for it in writing."
Berry warned producers not to make business decisions on what they heard from legislators during the farm forum, pointing out that the delegation had a lot of "snake pits" to cross before farm legislation could be passed.
Mississippi County producer Mike Sullivan asked what the chances are that a farm bill passed in 2002 would go into effect immediately.
Berry pointed out the 1996 farm bill went into effect immediately after its passage in April of that year.
Veach said if a farm bill is not passed quickly farmers would need emergency supplemental legislation.
Hutchinson and Lincoln assured the farmers that they would continually push for supplemental legislation as they have for the past four years. She said that last year they were promised supplemental funding in February, May and June and finally got it in August only to get 85 percent of what they were promised.
"Our first choice is a good farm bill," Veach said.
Several other questions were answered.
Hutchinson commented that "your delegation is willing to work together." He pointed out that Arkansas is the only state with both its senators on the Senate Agriculture committee.
Legislators made a few brief closing comments assuring the farmers that they would continue their efforts in getting a farm bill passed.
"We'll find a way through this some way," Berry said. "I know we have not painted a very pleasant picture for you, but we'll get through this and be stronger because of it."