Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman's first official visit to the Mid-South provided some glimpses of the “culture shock” that may occur as Congress and the administration consider new disaster assistance legislation.

Some in the audiences at Veneman's stops in Arkansas, Mississippi and Tennessee were disappointed that she seemed more interested in talking about President Bush's new energy strategy and expanding trade opportunities for agriculture than the amount of economic assistance that might be forthcoming.

Following her speech at the Dale Bumpers National Rice Research Center in Stuttgart, Ark., Harvey Joe Sanner, a producer from Des Arc, said that while farmers are concerned about energy prices, most are more worried about their incomes and the shape of next year's farm bill.

“There's not going to be many of us left growing biomass or anything else,” Sanner told the secretary, referring to her comment that the energy challenges the country faces also offer new market opportunities for farmers.

Sanner asked the secretary if the Agriculture Department would support and if she thought a supplemental Agricultural Market Transition Act or AMTA payment would be made this year.

Veneman replied that the president had set aside funds to deal with disasters in his budget and that she felt sure that monies would be available to meet the demand. She also said it might be September or October before the extent of the need became apparent.

In an earlier meeting with Delta Council leaders prior to her speech at the organization's annual meeting, Veneman was briefed on losses that have occurred in the number of Delta cotton gins and oil mills — part of the “food chain” that the secretary sometimes refers to in her speeches.

Her first response was a question about the impact of the losses on cotton acreage in the region.

While the secretary acknowledged the “rough times down here,” in her speech to the Delta Council, much of her time was devoted to what she described as the new global and technological realities that confront agriculture.

“To move policy and programs in the right direction, we need to understand better how the food chain fits within the U.S. economy — and perhaps more importantly, how it operates within today's global environment,” she said.

To understand where the secretary is coming from, you have to look at her background, says a Californian familiar with Veneman's career.

“We are very much free-traders out here,” he said. “Our survival has always been dependent on exports.

“When the California cotton industry was being developed in the early 1930s, U.S. mills would not use California cotton…they considered it inferior because it was irrigated and not rain grown. It had to be shipped to Mississippi and retagged as Mid-South cotton to even get domestic mills to use it.”

From that, California cotton producers developed their markets overseas and today more than 75 percent of California's cotton is exported. More than $6 billion of California's $26 billion in agricultural commodities are exported.

Although California growers are receiving half their income on cotton and wheat from farm programs these days, they still resist the idea that government should be involved in agriculture. “That's the environment she's been a part of,” he said. “So, she's going to look to improved efficiency and expanded trade to help farmers in the long-term and any economic assistance as a stopgap measure.”

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