Mississippi’s agriculture and forestry industries are a $7.3 billion business, employing almost one-third of Mississippi workers on 30 million acres.
Those farmers and timber growers now have the certainty of a new federal farm bill for the next five years thanks, in great measure, to Mississippi U.S. Sen. Thad Cochran. The fact that the farm bill balances the interests of Southern farmers with those of Midwestern farmers is a direct tribute to Cochran’s legislative skill, his personal tenacity and the esteem in which Cochran is held among his Senate colleagues.
Cochran had to win two major battles over the last two years to get the 2014 Farm Bill out of the morass of Capitol Hill gridlock and onto President Obama’s desk awaiting his signature.
First, Cochran had to stave off challengers for his seat as the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee even to be in position to use his vast experience to protect Mississippi farmers, landowners and timber growers.
That seat won, Cochran’s next challenge was navigating a changing political landscape. Cochran has served on the Senate Agriculture committee since 1978 – literally the whole of his career in the Senate. He chaired the committee from 2003 to 2005. During that time, Cochran has fought at least three farm bill battles that sought to walk the tight rope between fiscal responsibility on federal nutrition policy and practical policies that gave the nation’s farmers a fighting chance to make a profit.
The internal Senate politics on cobbling together a new farm bill were difficult. The process involved a pitched battle to determine whether U.S. farm policy shifted finally away from direct cash payments of commodity crop subsidies and price supports to new forms of subsidized crop insurance.
The new farm bill repeals the direct payment system, but replaces those direct payments with two new commodity programs designed to protect farmers from price and earnings declines while beefing up crop insurance programs.
It was also a sectional fight among farmers. Members of Congress from the Midwest and members from the South have spent the last year fighting over whether this nation's farm policy would favor crops grown primarily in the South over crops that are more prevalent in the Midwest.
Southern farmers who raise rice and peanuts were poised to see if the federal government gives them a smaller, less substantive farm safety net than that being afforded to farmers in the Midwest producing corn and soybeans. Catfish farmers were looking for protection from Asian competitors not subject to the same food safety inspections.
The new farm bill also strikes a reasonable compromise between the need to bring fiscal responsibility to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) - the federal program that my generation knew as “food stamps” – and throwing the neediest of the more than 650,000 Mississippians who utilized a program in Mississippi under the proverbial bus.
Some 1-in-5 Mississippians have utilized the SNAP program in the past. The new bill will save taxpayers some $8 billion, but will strengthen support for food banks and other local private sector charities by $200 million.
The new farm bill Cochran helped guide to passage also provides $150 million in water, waste disposal and wastewater facility grants and loans that are vital to rural Mississippi communities.
Without Cochran, the farm bill would have looked a lot different not just for Mississippi farmers and timber growers, but for farmers all across the South.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at email@example.com.