Senator to work for 2001 disaster aid

If Sen. Blanche Lincoln has her way, Congress will pass a supplemental appropriations bill that includes an additional Agricultural Market Transition Act payment for the 2001 crop year sooner rather than later in this legislative session.

“I have already been talking to some of my colleagues on the Senate Ag Committee as well as members of the Appropriations Committee about another disaster package to prevent market loss during 2001,” she said in a speech at the National Cotton Council's annual meeting in San Diego.

“The response I've been receiving so far has been positive, and I'm hopeful that Congress will pass a supplemental appropriations bill early this year that includes an additional AMTA payment.

The Arkansas Democrat said she is supporting a supplemental AMTA payment that, at the least, would be equal to last year's supplemental payment, which was made at 1999 rates or 5.1 cents per pound for cotton. Under the 1996 FAIR Act, the 2001 AMTA payment is scheduled to decline to 3.8 cents per pound.

“I did not support the 1996 farm bill,” she said. “I did not feel that it had all the components it needed to be successful. I don't have a problem with giving our farmers more flexibility. But we also need to give them the support they need, not only on trade issues but with programs that improve profitability.”

Senator Lincoln, whose family has farmed near Helena in the Arkansas Delta for seven generations, said nothing is set in stone as the evenly divided Senate and the House with its slim Republican majority try to get down to the business of resolving issues.

“Don't take that to the bank quite yet, because nothing is guaranteed in Washington,” she said. “But I can assure you that farm-state senators like myself will be pushing for providing the assistance our farmers need to stay in business.”

Longer term, she said she and her colleagues must take a “deep look” at new farm legislation.

“Chairman Combest of the House Ag Committee has taken the first step toward this process, calling for hearings on agricultural policy that will begin in February,” she said. (The first hearings were scheduled for Feb. 14 and 15.)

“Without a doubt the farm bill has not been as productive as we would like, not only for producers, but for us in the government,” said Lincoln, who in 1998 became the youngest woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate.

“We spent more in the last three years for disaster payments than we ever spent before,” she noted.

Change needed

“We need to change that, to give farmers something they can depend on and that they know they can take to the bank. I've said before that farmers need to know what they can expect from the federal government at the beginning of the year, not at the middle of the year or the end.”

Watching and waiting as Congress turns the disaster package into a hodge-podge at Christmas is not productive for agriculture, she said. “You have to be able to go to that banker with a business plan in hand and say ‘this is what I'm going to do and this is what I expect from Washington.’”

Responding to a question from the audience, Sen. Lincoln said she continues to favor easing payment limitations on all farmers, but especially those from the southern tier of states.

Hard sale

“It is really hard for me to translate to my Midwestern colleagues on the Agriculture Committee and in the Congress in general that cotton and rice — our major crops in the Sunbelt — are capital-intensive crops,” she said.

“You make a large investment when you plant cotton — you're not just broadcasting wheat seed out in a field somewhere. You make a huge investment in energy, for example, and in herbicides and pesticides.”

She noted that the Commission on 21st Century Agriculture, which issued its report on Jan. 30, was calling for lifting of caps on farm program payments.

“We have fought that fight, and we spend a lot of time to make sure that people understand that the way that we farm and the crops that we farm are completely different in terms of that capital intensity and the investments that we make and the limb you have to walk out on,” she said.

“I think we have an opportunity in the new farm bill to make some changes, particularly in light of the 21st Century Agriculture Commission's recommendations.”

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