We need to control our own destiny

The speech Jesse D. Williams gave the other night to a group of Virginia peanut farmers had a ring of truth that goes far beyond the Tidewater. As the farmers rose to their feet applauding the City of Suffolk ag leader, they no doubt knew that the words applied to them as well as others.

“Each of us needs to take control of our own destiny,” said the president of the Virginia Peanut Growers Association. “Whatever your decision for producing under a new bill, let's give the impression that we are good businesspeople.

“We farmers love producing too much,” Williams says. “We're too dependent on the government for prices and too slow and unwilling to work together.

“Farmers are in trouble all over the world,” Williams said. “We're our own worst enemy. How small will the farm population have to get?”

“Farmers are not considered good businesspeople because they are not making any attempt to control production when markets are historically low,” Williams continued. “Their love of growing a crop at any price makes them vulnerable to manufacturers and middlemen. Other businessmen would not continue to produce a crop at losses. Farmers should cut their acreage when they cannot make a profit.” But the problem doesn't end at the farm.

Williams says the problem lies with farm programs, the government, consumers, and the general direction of agriculture. Along the way, he talked specifically about the new peanut program.

“The consumer today has no idea of the amount of time and investment it takes to put food on their table, and taxpayer investment will not continue” Williams told the group in late March. “In a recent poll, 50 percent of Americans didn't realize that food and clothing originated on a farm.

“Consumers are more interested in convenience than where the product originated or how safe it is,” Williams said. “They are so far removed from the farm that I'm not sure that we can educate them enough to change their minds. We may have to get to the point where consumers pull up to the grocery store with a cartload of money and have nothing to buy.”

Williams believes the marketing-loan system has done a lot to degrade the farmers in the eyes of consumers. “Supply and demand isn't working in agriculture. The middleman has too big of a stranglehold.”

Turning to his fellow farmers, Williams bemoaned the lack of cooperation when it comes to policy. “Division in the peanut program is evidence of this,” he says. “And it's not just U.S. farmers. Farmers are in trouble the world over.

“Policies are just enough to keep farmers' heads above water,” Williams says. “We're the only industry that will continue to produce wide-open when the price is less than our fixed and variable costs.”

Farmers are looking at $2-range corn, 40-cent range cotton and $350-$375 ton peanuts, under the new bill, Williams says. “We're telling every body that this price is OK for next year, too. We are our own worst enemy.”

Talking particularly about the peanut program, Williams took shellers to task for their support of the marketing loan program to be put into effect this year. “The shellers have a greater interest in manufacturers than those who supply the raw product. The shellers are going to tell you they can bring peanuts in from Argentina. The manufacturers, I think, are a little uneasy about peanuts coming from Argentina. If Argentina does become a major supplier, someone will process peanuts there cheaper. Shellers say Argentine peanuts are just as good as U.S., but there's a tremendous liability since Sept. 11.

“I don't think Argentina can predict a steady and stable supply of peanuts,” Williams predicts. “They've got problems.

Williams also pointed to production moving to west Texas, where disease problems are less than in the V-C area. “Long-term, 15 to 20 years, I'm not sure west Texas is going to be able to compete with us,” he says. “Water will become more of a problem, as well as inconsistent weather. We have a proven record as a consistent supplier over the long-term.

Williams says one of his biggest disappointments was “seeing Birdsong Peanuts and Golden Peanut Company advocating the new peanut program with west Texas against Virginia.”

The new peanut bill gives landowners who own quota, but don't farm, 10 cents (House version) to 11 cents (Senate version). Peanut growers will receive between $480-$520 for base acreage and a loan rate of $350-$400 for the remainder of the peanuts.

Straining to move a copy of the 1,711-page document called the farm bill to the podium where he was speaking, Williams said it's not possible for congressmen and senators, or their staffs, to keep up with the farm bill. He called the process “slow and laborious.”

Williams says the secretary of agriculture should have been out front leading the input on the farm bill. Only after the House passed its version did the secretary weigh in on the farm bill. “She had no impact on the farm bill. She should have been leading the fight to put it off until next year. I don't think we have a department of agriculture. I think we have a secretary of consumer affairs.”

Williams' comments also applied to former secretaries of agriculture. “A former secretary of agriculture says farmers need to cut costs,” he reported. “Where has he been?”

Not realistic

Data showing farmers as making a cash-grab are not realistic, Williams says. “You can make data look anyway you want it to. The Environmental Working Group moved so fast because they have former USDA employees working for them.”

The City of Suffolk, Va., leader believes the government has a role to protect the country's vital industries, agriculture included. The playing field should be leveled in relation to wages, environmental, labor laws and currency exchange rates with other countries.

“There needs to be serious change in our trade negotiations,” Williams says.

As for a solution, Williams says the U.S. needs negotiators similar to “pen hookers” who sit outside of livestock barns, calculating the value of each individual load of cattle before offering a price.

“The government's role should be to insure we get our fair percent of the dollar,” Williams says.

“We shouldn't expect a reasonable return — we should demand it,” Williams says.

They listened, but I'm not sure they took my case. Now, if we have a new peanut program in place for this season, I'm going to have to go around and renegotiate.”

Bain is waiting to see what will happen. In late March, he had a “gut feeling” that the current program would be extended another year. Should that happen, he plans to cut production 20 to 22 percent on his 600 acres. If peanuts are under a new program, “the cut could be much greater. It's going to be very confusing if they change it now.”

The first week of April, Bain was in the field planting corn. “We already have investments in the farm,” he says. “It's got me in a tizzy.”

It's a similar situation for Tom Clements, who farms both sides of the state line of North Carolina and Virginia.

“I know we can't live in this environment very long,” he says. “I've got operating loans. And I don't see the landowners giving us a break on rent.”

Clements feels like the V-C, which he describes as the “most efficient in the country,” is being put on the chopping block with the legislation in Congress.

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