Face To Face
With Senator Blanche Lincoln
By Tommy Horton
If you could offer any encouragement today to cotton producers and the rest of the industry, what would it be?
Agriculture and cotton, in particular, have a tremendous opportunity right now. The economy is at a difficult point, but we are still competitive in the global, albeit volatile, marketplace. Agriculture is still one of the few industries where we run a trade surplus with the rest of the world. Agriculture has a chance to partially redefine itself if it can partner in efforts such as energy and health care reform. We need to stand up and tell the rest of the country how important agriculture is to our economy. Our quality of life would certainly be worse off if we did not have a strong domestic ag industry.
Can cotton recover and regain some stability in the future?
I think there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about cotton’s future. Obviously, we aren’t out of the woods yet on the economic recovery. We have to be pragmatic because I don’t think we can really spend our way out of this recession. I do think there is hope for cotton’s recovery. We have to look at industries where we can make a difference and where we can be competitive in the global market. It’s true that the general public probably doesn’t have an appreciation for cotton products now or the problems confronting our industry, but I have a lot of faith in our future.
As the new Farm Bill is being implemented, can you appreciate the challenges that producers are facing as they try to understand all of its provisions?
We are slowly but surely getting there on some of these things. We’ve been trying to work with USDA, and the initial problem was that there wasn’t anybody over there at the agency after the recent election. You had to get people appointed and confirmed.
I know this, the Farm Bill is a five-year contract with farmers and our growers, and they should be able to count on the government to hold up its end of the bargain. I understand there is still some confusion on how a number of provisions in the Farm Bill will be implemented, payment limits in particular. I have worked with like-minded members in the Senate and House to ensure that USDA implements the Farm Bill as it was intended, and you can be sure we’ll continue to do so. It has been a fight, though, and I expect we’ll still run into issues moving forward with implementation.
Can cotton gain access to overseas markets in the ongoing WTO negotiations?
What will be important in the WTO talks is that we begin anew and have a fresh start. When the talks were suspended, a proposal was on the table to reduce the safety net of our U.S. producers. Our negotiators were under the assumption that other countries would follow suit and provide our producers new market access. That didn’t happen, and many of us in Congress said there was no way we would sacrifice our producers like that. I have worked with our new U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, and I believe he’ll be a strong voice for agriculture in the new WTO talks.
Are you proud of the bipartisan efforts you led in the Farm Bill debate?
I was definitely proud to have worked with Senators Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) and Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) and several others on some of the issues in the Farm Bill. Agriculture has traditionally been bipartisan in so many ways.
The other key part of the situation is being able to work on legislation from a regional standpoint. Obviously, the population in this country is concentrated on the East Coast and West Coast. We have to make sure the middle part of the country doesn’t get left out. Our regions are different from the rest of the country, and we have to appreciate each other’s differences. Hopefully, that fact will encourage some bipartisanship.
Will urban members of Congress ever appreciate the fact that the commodity title is a small percentage of the overall Farm Bill?
You really have to spell it out for them and drill it into their heads. When you look at the numbers, 82 percent of the Farm Bill was devoted to nutrition and 16 percent was earmarked for agriculture and conservation. Unless we want to start importing all of our food and fiber, we need to make sure the public and our colleagues in Congress understand this. We’re the third largest exporter in the world, and the two countries ahead of us use water from rivers with direct sewage access in their cotton production. These are things that people need to know. This is why the commodity title is important in the Farm Bill. If we don’t have a viable ag economy in this country, our way of life would be different.
Why is agriculture such a passion for you?
Besides being raised in a farm family in Helena, Ark., I believe in the families and workers across this country who spend their days from sunup to sundown doing the best job they can do. I just think that being a part of rural America is a very special thing.
I can remember my father walking through a rice field and the way he wanted that field to be as clean as possible. These are the experiences that make me appreciate agriculture. Somehow we need to teach children that food doesn’t come from the grocery store. Somebody grew those crops that gave us this food.
Your father obviously had a big influence on your life. What are your most vivid recollections of him?
I have never seen or known a better conservationist than my father. He had more respect for the land and environment because he depended on it to support his family. And he wanted to preserve it for future generations of his family to use it. But he also enjoyed the land he owned. Whenever he had a spare moment, that’s what he was doing – turkey or duck hunting or fishing. Or, he was working in a vegetable garden in the back of the house. Those are very special memories.
How do you feel about farmers who chase higher prices by growing other crops?
A lot of farmers are doing this out of necessity – not because it’s what they want to do or it’s more efficient. I did not support Freedom To Farm in 1994 because I thought it was dangerous. When you chase prices in the marketplace, it affects the investment you’ve already made in your regular crop.
Infrastructure and knowledge of a crop you’re suited to grow are very important. When a farmer buys a $450,000 cotton harvester and then suddenly decides to start growing corn, it’s a major adjustment and can have an impact on his profitability. Having said this, I do think it’s attractive when a farmer can shift some of his acres into renewable crops. It will be important to know that we can still use cotton stalks to make cellulosic ethanol. I can see advantages in devoting some acreage to rapeseed, sunflowers or switchgrass as we look to these exciting future opportunities.
What is the biggest misconception about the payment limit issue as it pertains to Southern producers?
I always tell my colleagues that the payment follows the production. Furthermore, you have to understand that the payment isn’t going into the farmer’s pocket. It’s probably going to the banker who is financing the purchase of that expensive piece of equipment. Because our farmers are in an economy of scale in a large production effort, the payment is naturally going to be larger. It’s hard for some of my Congressional colleagues to understand this.
Are there other issues that affect rural ag environments that the general public isn’t aware of?
That’s a good question. I was talking to a friend in Washington who was from another state. This person has a business partner from Argentina who has just bought 7,000 acres of farmland in Arkansas and has plans to buy 5,000 more acres in the same area.
I don’t think the American public realizes how much land is being purchased by foreign investors. Sure, the land will be cultivated and will probably be farmed by somebody locally. But the land ownership isn’t staying in those farm families. I’m not saying foreign investment is bad necessarily, but I have concerns about the ownership of land moving from families with deep ties to the communities they live in to a company that is not as familiar with the families depending upon farming that land to make a living.
How do you feel about the climate change legislation that is making its way into the Senate?
I am proud of the bipartisan energy bill I recently helped pass out of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. I believe our bill can serve as the basis of the Senate’s comprehensive energy reform bill, which will promote greater energy efficiency and grow the use of cleaner, renewable energy sources that will benefit our environment, create jobs and cut out dependence on foreign oil. I believe this legislation represents an important step forward in enabling our nation to transition to a new energy economy.
Adding climate change legislation to the reforms already included in the Senate Energy Committee’s proposal is going to be a challenge in my view. I have many questions about how the House-passed climate change provisions will impact energy prices for consumers and businesses, including our agriculture community, especially during an economic downturn. I’ve heard from my farmers in Arkansas who are concerned that the cost of fertilizer and fuel would increase, and how offsets will be managed under a cap-and-trade system.
As we move forward in the legislative process, we must ensure we don’t do more harm than good as Congress considers various proposals to achieve the needed reforms.
Finally, how do you manage to maintain such a normal family life with your husband and twin sons while being a senator?
Like any working parent, it can be a challenge to balance family and work. I do a lot of shopping at wholesale stores, and my slow cooker gets plenty of use throughout the week. My family and Arkansas roots keep me grounded and are what make me a better senator. I don’t know how many senators do their own grocery shopping or fill their own gas tanks, but I sure do, just as any Arkansan does. My family’s support has allowed me to remain true to myself and true to my state.
Contact Senator Blanche Lincoln in Washington at (202) 224-4843 or in Little Rock, Ark., at (501) 375-2993.
Lincoln Never Wavers In Support of Agriculture
Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s support of agriculture has gained her many friends in the cotton industry. Two leaders who can attest to that support are Louisiana producer Jay Hardwick and Arkansas producer-ginner Larry McClendon.
Hardwick is the current chairman of the National Cotton Council, while McClendon is the organization’s board chairman. Both men have spent years working with Lincoln on farm policy while serving in NCC leadership positions.
McClendon farms and gins in Marianna, Ark., which is about 20 miles from Helena, Lincoln’s childhood home. Lincoln’s mother, Martha Kelly Lambert, still resides in Helena. Her father died in 2002.
“I’ve known her family for many years, and the first time I met Blanche was when she was a young teenager,” says McClendon. “She represents rural America’s values in a very passionate way. We are lucky to have her in Washington.”
McClendon isn’t surprised by Lincoln’s meteoric rise in Congress, which started in 1992 when she was elected to represent Arkansas’ First Congressional District. He says she has two traits that make her an effective senator. First, she is passionate about agriculture and never compromises her convictions about what is best for Arkansas farmers. Second, she is rapidly gaining a reputation for working with Republicans to achieve bipartisan legislation.
“I don’t mind telling you that the burden of the Farm Bill last year depended on three or four people in Congress, and Sen. Lincoln was one of them,” says McClendon. “That’s the bottom line. I’m not just talking about the cotton industry, but agriculture, in general. She’s that important to us.”
Lincoln’s aforementioned efforts at bipartisanship were showcased last year when she invited Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) to a joint meeting at the Clinton Library in Little Rock to talk about the Farm Bill. More than 200 persons showed up for the event.
“How many people would do that?” McClendon says. “She is willing to reach across the aisle to make sure people get on board with her. And when something is important to her like agriculture, she has the backbone to say what’s right.”
Strong Work With NCC
Hardwick, former chairman of the American Cotton Producers before assuming his position as NCC chairman, echoes McClendon’s comments.
He recalls her recent actions when she and Sen. Chambliss organized 21 senators to sign a letter urging Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to “make sure the new farm law is implemented in a farmer-friendly way and according to Congressional intent.”
“I can also recall another time when she spearheaded an effort with Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) to urge the Budget Committee to reject all proposals that would make significant changes in the new farm law,” Hardwick says.
“The U.S. cotton industry sincerely appreciates Sen. Lincoln and her tireless support for production agriculture and rural America.”
Facts About Sen. Lincoln
• Native of Helena, Ark.