Agriculture needs to get message across to American public

I had a chance a few weeks ago to attend the Southern Peanut Producers Association meeting in Panama City Beach, Fla. A part of that program was a panel of farmers airing their concerns to a panel of listeners made up primarily of representatives of key politicians in the peanut belt, lobbyists for various peanut groups, plus a member of the American Farm Bureau.

I wrote a story about the session and received an interesting letter from an Alabama peanut farmer, who read the story. The gist of the heartfelt letter was that bad politics had ruined the peanut business for farmers, and that his congressman, Hon. Terry Everett, a Republican, is the worst of the worst.

I don't know Congressman Everett, but what I know about him is good. I know he has been a champion of the big Army base at Fort Rucker in southwest Alabama. And, I always thought of him as a friend to agriculture.

Yet the letter was well written and the grower's points well made, so I offered to use this space for him to air his opinion. He refused, and out of respect for him, I won't name names. He is to me typical of people in agriculture who have a valid point, who are passionate about it, but refuse to share it with people outside their comfort zone. If he believes Terry Everett is a crooked politician and responsible for the demise of peanut farmers in southeast Alabama, he should spend every waking hour and every spare dime to get him out of office.

As one of the many unsuccessful opponents of the late former Alabama Governor, Big Jim Folsom once said, “crooked politicians are only crooked if you elect them.” I can't say for sure Big Jim was a crooked politician, but I can say for certain that he got elected many times.

Arguably, one of agriculture's biggest faults is not doing a good enough job of impressing upon the American public the important, if not vital, role our industry plays in the everyday lives of all U.S. citizens. As I've written here before, all that is needed for agriculture to go the same way as steel, textiles and automotives is for those of us involved in the industry to let it happen.

As part of the Peanut Producers Association farmer forum, a young man from Houston County Ala., Myron Johnson gave the most heart-tugging, emotional, yet factual case for peanut farmers that I've ever heard.

If the millions of Americans who watched and voted for the recent American Idol voted in political elections, and had they seen and heard Myron Johnson's comments, I believe a big part of the peanut farming problem would be solved, because the vast majority of Americans would side with him.

I doubt many, if any, Americans want to open up a can or jar of roasted peanuts and read on the label — a product of Mexico. Nor would many like to eat peanut butter from peanuts grown in Argentina and processed in Canada. If changes at the highest political levels in the U.S. are not made, that is more likely to be the scenario than not.

A simple economic fact is that peanut farmers cannot stay where they are price and cost wise. Long-term, weather, the high cost of fuel and oil-based pesticides, weed resistance to low cost herbicides and a thousand other variable costs associated with growing peanuts will take them out of the business.

Myron Johnson's family has been in the peanut growing business for several generations. He, along with other members of the grower panel, stressed they could not stay in the peanut business unless significant changes are made. Multiply Myron Johnson's voice by a thousand, and you might have a reasonable understanding of what a desperate situation the U.S. peanut industry is facing.

The most current crisis is whether money will be available to pay storage and transportation costs associated with selling peanuts. If the cost is deferred to peanut growers, there will likely be very few peanut farmers around to pay it. If that seems far-fetched, talk to the thousand or so Virginia farmers who abandoned peanuts because there was no profit in the crop.

The next farm bill will be debated at a time of record budgetary deficit. Simply put, there is little money for farm programs, and peanuts, on a U.S. scale, is just that — peanuts. Peanut farmers can't stay in business for long in the current economic environment and political leaders are continuing to say there will be less money for farmers in the upcoming farm bill than in the current one.

For the 30 years or so that I've been around the peanut industry, growers, shellers, buyers, end-users — all point the finger at each other as being the cause of the demise of peanut profitability. At a time when everyone involved in the peanut industry is so desperate for a win/win situation, that divided house is a perfect blueprint for a lose/lose scenario.

I have mentioned previously the ongoing plight of a small group of farmers and landowners in eastern North Carolina who are fighting the U.S. Navy over land for an Offsite Landing Field for Navy aircraft. The No OLF folks may lose that battle, but one thing is for certain they won't lose it standing around pointing fingers at each other, nor waiting for someone to step up to the plate to speak for them.

The peanut industry is a giant relative to the OLF Committee in North Carolina. The North Carolina group has been standing toe to toe, eyeball to eyeball with the U.S. Navy and influential politicians in neighboring states, and they haven't blinked yet — for well over three years. Local politicians who didn't see things their way were voted out of office, now they are setting their sites on state level politicians.

As Myron Johnson so eloquently said at the Southern Peanut Growers Association meeting, “We have to restore pride in agriculture. Farmers don't want to be looked at as second class citizens, standing in line waiting for a government handout.”

If $3 a gallon gas doesn't leave a good taste in your mouth, I doubt, over-priced, inferior quality peanut butter will do much for you either. If peanuts are the first to go, what will be next — corn, wheat, maybe cotton? In general, if you don't like dependence on other countries for oil, you are really going to hate depending on them for food.

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