GANADO, Texas — I am a third-generation rice farmer. My wife and I farm about 300 acres of wheat, 500 acres of grain sorghum, 400 acres of soybeans and 350 acres of rice. We also own about 60 head of beef cattle. I also help my dad take care of his 400 acres of rice and his 650 head of beef cattle. My dad is 71 years old.
My wife and I used to farm 500 acres of strictly rice, but the rice market has not enjoyed the market effects from the energy subsidies that corn and beans have. So I began to look for other options and discovered that in order to survive, I had to diversify. The problem with that is the land I farm is only good for growing rice and cattle.
Rice is a totally different crop from any other out there. Rice is flood irrigated, while corn and beans are farmed in dry-land rows and sprinkler irrigated. I would have take on substantially more debt to buy new equipment and change my irrigation system in order to make the jump from rice to other crops.
I had not farmed any other crop before and I had no idea what seeds were best, chemicals to use, or local merchants to market my crops. And I had to contend with all the typical uncertainties associated with farming — weather, markets, costs, insects, disease and water issues. I basically had to start over.
So I have a lot of experience with uncertainty. What’s going on in Washington is just another instance of it.
I have no idea what Washington has in store for the Farm Bill’s safety net. Congress may include the Farm Bill as part of a “grand bargain" to avert the “fiscal cliff" come Jan. 1. But if they do, which version will it be: the one that passed the Senate — not rice-farmer friendly — or the one that passed the House Agriculture Committee — a big improvement?
Why do we need safety nets? Farming is not an occupation you can do when prices are good and get out of when prices are bad. You have to build and maintain a farm long enough to justify the astronomical costs it takes to operate. Safety nets ensure that after a natural disaster or market collapse, there are still farmers left to feed America. Also, they give me a measure of certainty to present to my banker when I have to renew operating loans. My banker doesn’t like to loan large amounts of money to businesses full of uncertainties.
Actually, I don’t like farm subsides. I don’t like people assuming farmers are receiving a handout. I don’t want the government meddling around in my business. But the problem is that U.S. farmers are not on a level playing field with the rest of the world. For instance, the U.S. has high food safety standards; I can’t use certain chemicals in crop production because they are known carcinogens. Yet the countries we import rice from are Third World nations that can use the less-expensive, outlawed products. And the U.S. imports their products, no questions asked, and sticks them on shelves in the grocery store right next to ours at a cheaper price.
I have to buy tractors with tier 4 engines that are way more expensive than other countries without U.S. pollution standards. Third World countries are allowed to have market protective subsidies (WTO rules) that the U.S. is not allowed to have.
I think that if Americans want their food produced to a certain standard, then substandard commodities should not be allowed into the country.
I admit, I don’t know what the right answer is for U.S. farmers. But I have some suggestions.
First, I think that a lot of money could be saved in the Farm Bill if the government would require recipients of farm payments to actually be farmers.
In Texas, tenant rice farmers have been kicked off the land so the landowner could get the farm subsidies. I know people here in Ganado who have not produced a crop in 15 years and have enjoyed the Farm Bill’s benefits.
Second, we need to get out of the WTO. The U.S. can negotiate our own free trade agreements that are more favorable to our farmers.
Third, we need to realize that if we want high food standards, a cleaner environment and better worker safety standards than any other country in the world, then our commodities/products are going to be more expensive than every other country in the world.