It isn’t easy when a farmer takes on added responsibilities. But that is exactly what West Tennessee cotton, corn, soybean and wheat producer Stephen Fincher has done since 2010 when he was elected to Congress. Although it is a major commitment, Fincher is trying to represent his agricultural constituents in Washington while helping manage the family farming operation and spend time with his wife and three children. In this interview with Cotton Farming Editor Tommy Horton, Fincher discusses priorities for his family, Congress and the nation’s agricultural economy.
What made you want to run for Congress in 2010?
Some friends of mine asked me to run. I had never held public office before, and my first reaction was to say “no.” I talked to my wife Lynn, and we prayed about it. She said we had to do it because our country is heading in the wrong direction. I also ran for Congress because I want this country to remain the best in the world. We have three children, ages 9, 13 and 16. I want them to have every opportunity to succeed, and, in order to ensure that, we have to get things back on track.
Has the experience been what you expected?
Not at all. I went to Washington to get things done, and, instead, so many bills that have passed in the House have stalled in the Senate. Tennessee common sense does not exist in Washington. We have to work to lower the debt, create a working energy policy and repeal ObamaCare. We have made some strides in the House. My bill, the Jobs Act, contains several measures to get small business back to work. Small businesses are the real job creators, and they need as much help as they can get breaking through burdensome regulations put in place by Washington. The Jobs Act is in the Senate now and awaiting action along with 25 other bills that help get Americans back to work.
How have you balanced your time being a family man, farmer and member of Congress?
Washington is a nice place to visit, but Tennessee is home. I come home to Tennessee every weekend to be with my family. I also sing Southern gospel with my family at events in Tennessee. I’ve been singing since I was nine years old, and our family has been involved in it for more than 60 years. I always try to reserve Sundays for church and family time. My sons and I love to hunt so we try get out there as much as we can. I also reserve time to farm. This is the way I stay in touch with my constituents. It brings it all back to voting for the people of West Tennessee and not Washington.
What are the challenges facing today’s farmer?
Agriculture is critical to the economy across the country, especially in the economy of small communities like Crockett County where I live. Washington agencies are negatively impacting small rural communities. I can’t go off the farm without someone letting me know their issues with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). From dust regulations to the proposed fuel shortage containment issue, it seems the EPA wants to control more and more aspects of farming. As a seventh-generation cotton farmer, it seems to me that more and more families are losing their farms due to taxes when they have a death in the family. We should repeal the Estate Tax laws to make it easier to pass on and keep the family farm going. Washington should get out of the way and give the power back to the people where it belongs. Washington having control of every industry, including agriculture, is not the solution. It’s the problem.
Are you frustrated at how the public doesn’t seem to understand the farmer’s contribution to the U.S. economy?
Being from West Tennessee, you don’t have to look far to see what agriculture can build. For example, Memphis was built on cotton. At one time, Memphis was the largest spot cotton marketplace in the world. So, agriculture is definitely the economic engine that drives local economies. The local family farmer purchases insurance, shops at the grocery store and contributes to other businesses. And don’t forget the amount of money spent locally to purchase fuel, fertilizer and seed. Without that contribution, the economy in rural America would dry up. Washington also needs to do a better job of understanding the impact that regulations have on the farm. Lisa Jackson, the EPA Administrator, continues to propose new regulations that greatly affect the ability of these family farms to survive. I think the real question we should ask Ms. Jackson is does she really have an understanding of what these regulations cost.
How can agriculture communicate its message better to the public and Congress?
We have a great story to tell of ingenuity, hard work and strong values. We need to get the American public to understand that a loaf of bread didn’t just grow on the shelf. Food costs are on the rise, and the family farmers are easy targets. We need to inform the public that the amount family farms receive from every food dollar has consistently dropped. In fact, according to the USDA, family farmers receive only 19 cents out of every food dollar spent. Take Corn Flakes, for example. An 18-ounce box of Corn Flakes contains about 12.9 ounces of milled field corn. When field corn is priced at $2.28 per bushel, the actual value of corn represented in the box of Corn Flakes is about 3.3 cents. The agriculture community has to maintain a unified voice in order to stay one step ahead. We need to be active and engaged to make sure this message gets through.
Has there ever been a more important year for agriculture with a Farm Bill and elections looming ahead?
This is a make-or-break year for agriculture. Commodity prices are high, America is facing a budget crisis, and there are many in Congress who believe agricultural programs need to be cut. You know as well as I do that most farmers are a bad crop away from losing the farm. We must have a strong safety net in place. Without good policy in place, the price of food in grocery stores will skyrocket the same as gas has at the pumps. That is why it is so important that we educate consumers on the effect agricultural policy has on their pocketbooks. Strong agricultural policy keeps the price of food low for families. Somehow, we have to find a way to communicate these important principles.
For additional information, contact Rep. Fincher in Washington at (202) 225-4714 or go to fincher.house.gov or http://www.facebook.com/representativestephenfincher.
Ag Leaders Show Support for Fincher
West Tennessee agricultural leaders are unanimous on one fact. They know that their new congressman understands the challenges that agriculture faces on a day-to-day basis. After all, Stephen Fincher’s family has deep roots in Crockett County and the surrounding area where farming is the main component of the regional economy.
Two of those leaders – producer Jimmy Hargett and ginner Carter Edwards – are pleased that Rep. Fincher knows the importance of strong ag policy that supports all sectors of agriculture.
“I think he has done a good job so far,” says Hargett, who has been friends with Fincher’s family since the days when nine-year-old Stephen was a small boy singing in his family’s gospel singing group.
“I know him well enough to know that he’ll do his best to make the right decision for farmers back home in West Tennessee. He’s definitely under a lot of pressure, but I have faith in him. From what I have heard, he’s already earned the respect of his fellow congressmen in the House.”
Hargett, who farms in Bells, Tenn., says he only had one word of advice for Fincher before the freshman congressman headed to Washington in January of 2011.
“I told him that I was proud to be his neighbor, and that I hoped Washington wouldn’t ruin him like it has so many other folks,” he added with a laugh.
Edwards, owner of Crockett Gin Co., in Maury City, Tenn., has also known the Fincher family for many years.
“I feel very good that we have a congressman in Washington who is a man of character and has a great background in business and agriculture,” says Edwards. “I think he can represent this district very well. With farming being such an important part of the economy, that’s what I was most concerned about.”
Edwards will be the first to acknowledge that Fincher is making a big sacrifice by being a congressman. Fincher’s father Jackie and brother Austin will assume more farm responsibilities, and Fincher’s wife and children will only see him on weekends when Congress is in session.
“If anybody can make this work, it’s Stephen,” says Edwards.