Bruce Schultz | 4/22/2005 12:29:15 AM
Representatives of rice farming groups recently returned from Washington, D.C., slightly more optimistic than when they left, but they warn that agriculture faces potentially tough times.
The four-day trip in mid-February had been planned before President Bush’s announced proposal to cut spending on agriculture.
After the trip ended Feb. 17, farmer Jimmy Hoppe of Fenton said agriculture officials offered no hope of revising a decision that requires rice farmers to repay money under the counter-cyclical program.
"They seemed to think there’s no way to undo that," Hoppe said.
For most farmers, according to Hoppe, that means those funds will be taken out of future government payments.
A meeting with the Senate Agriculture Committee staff was encouraging, Hoppe said – with assurances from U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., to keep the current federal Farm Bill intact. Several other lawmakers from states with heavy agricultural bases also expressed their intent not to change the 2002 Farm Bill, he said.
And Louisiana’s senators and representatives offered their support for agriculture, he said.
"I felt a lot better after being up there visiting with the legislative delegation," Hoppe said.
Jackie Loewer of Branch said he was with a group that met with the new Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns.
The secretary, formerly governor of Nebraska, admitted he doesn’t know much about rice, Loewer said.
"It was mostly meet-and-greet," Loewer said. "He said he has an open door."
Loewer said members of the group got to meet with Louisiana’s U.S. Sens. Mary Landrieu, D-New Orleans, and David Vitter, R-Metairie, in addition to Louisiana congressmen Bobby Jindal, R-Metairie; Rodney Alexander, R-Quitman; Richard Baker, R-Baton Rouge; Dr. Charles Boustany, R-Lafayette; and Charlie Melancon, D-Houma.
Loewer said members of the Senate Agriculture Committee gave assurances that the Bush cuts won’t go unopposed.
"They were saying, ‘We’re not going to balance the budget on the backs of the farmers,’" Loewer said. "I was encouraged that the battle is not over."
John Denison of Calcasieu Parish said the White House proposal to reduce spending on agriculture is not a trial balloon.
"This administration is very serious about budget cuts in agriculture," he said. "It’s very serious to the future of the rice industry and, I believe, southern agriculture."
But he said the message the group conveyed in Washington was that farmers had planned their operations on a five-year farm bill that should be left intact.
"We feel like we had a contract through 2007," Denison said.
Denison said he was surprised that many Republican lawmakers oppose the administration’s agriculture cuts.
"I came home feeling better about the overall budget situation than when I went up there," he said.
Linda Zaunbrecher had the same reaction to the trip, thanks to the response by lawmakers.
"Our delegation was very supportive," she said. "No one in our delegation disagreed with us."
Other senators and representatives from states with agricultural bases voiced their support also, she said.
Despite the confidence, Dr. Ernest Girouard of Kaplan said the four-day trip didn’t start off on a very reassuring note – during a meeting with Bush’s trade representative and a White House economic adviser. The trade representative didn’t offer any hope for increased trade with Cuba, he said, and the economic adviser didn’t want to budge on cuts for farm programs.
But the group found more empathy on Capitol Hill, Girouard said.
House and Senate agriculture committee staff members pledged to fight revising the current farm bill, he said.
‘There’s a lot of rhetoric out there," Girouard said. "It’s still early in the game."
Writer: Bruce Schultz at (337) 788-8821 or email@example.com