Congressman seeks local input on Farm Bill

Lazaro Aleman
ECB Publishing, Inc.
Unlike the hostile receptions that some members of Congress have been receiving when they return to their home districts, District 5 U.S. Representative Al Lawson’s visit here last week was a friendly and civil affair.
But then, Lawson was preaching to the choir, even when he called the president’s budget unacceptable, as his criticism was aimed at the budget’s impact on agriculture, and the audience consisted entirely of the agricultural community and those university programs and extension services that serve and support it.
“The president’s budget is unacceptable,” Lawson said several times during his 1½-hour talk to an audience of about 70 people at a cavernous citrus packinghouse off the Boston Highway on Thursday afternoon, June 1.
“It (president’s budget) cuts staff by 25 percent and it cuts subsidies for small farmers,” Lawson said. “I have told the president’s people that the president’s budget is unacceptable to north Florida. A lot of my colleagues understand our position and they’re willing to work with us.’
Lawson in his opening remarks touched on his first five months in Congress and express marvel at the extreme partisanship that exists in the nation’s capital.
“In Washington D.C., the campaigning never stops,” he said.
He then quickly launched into the Farm Bill and the need to get it right this time around by correcting the deficiencies of the current one, as well as touching on sundry food-related issues.
Lawson decried that one of every five persons in his district depended on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) -- which was twice the national average -- while 200,000 people daily went without food in Jacksonville. This was why it was critical that Congress supported agriculture, he said.
“It’s important that we do everything that we can so that you can help feed Florida and the rest of the United States,” Lawson told the audience.
He said NAFTA had either to be redone or let go.
“NAFTA is killing our tomato industry,” Lawson said. “We shouldn’t be at a disadvantage with Mexico.”
And he again called the president’s budget unacceptable, in terms of its impact on north Florida’s agricultural industry.
Lawson cited various statistics to underscore agriculture’s importance to Florida as an economic engine, including the state’s farmland acreage, cash receipts and leading crops. He touted cotton, peanuts, tomatoes, turf grass and others of the state agriculture products as significant contributors to the state’s economy.
And hence immigration was of critical importance to Florida agriculture, Lawson said, if farmers were to get their crops off the field and into the market.
He called the Farm Bill critical and said it was his mission, and his slogan, was “Feed America.”
When Lawson finally began soliciting questions from his audience, the very first, from Bobbie Golden, was about immigration and the need for a sensible program if farmers were to get the necessary labor to get their crops off the field.
“The issue of immigration is one that we’ve been dealing with for the last five months,” Lawson said. “It’s high on the agenda. If everybody in America were willing to work in the field, we’d have lower unemployment. We know that immigrants are helping the farmers.”
Ernest Fulford, a local cotton and peanut farmer, complained about the crop insurance. He said the way it worked now, farmers lost both ways when disaster struck their crops.
“We lost 40 percent of our crops last year because of the hurricane,” Fulford said. “But the insurance companies are getting all the money and it’s not being passed down to us.”
Lawson said he was aware of the problem and it was something that needed to be corrected in the Farm Bill and that the president needed to be made to understand. All the while, he emphasized that it all had to be done by September, as that’s when the Farm Bill had to be completed.
Van Murphy, a Georgia man who identified himself as a representative of the National Cotton Council (NCC), stressed that cotton needed to put back on the Farm Bill as a commodity.
“I also represent peanuts,” Murphy said. “Cotton and peanuts go hand-in-hand.”
He said if his request could be accomplished it would be helpful to young farmers in their 40s, given the last five years, which had been terrible for farmers.
“If we don’t encourage them, we’re going to lose them,” Murphy said of the younger farmers, urging Lawson to work with the NCC in Washington, D.C.
A couple of individuals associated with the FAMU agriculture program talked about the importance of research and the extension services programs and urged that research funding not be shortchanged in the Farm Bill.
Others in the group spoke about the need to ensure that rural development funding was made accessible to impoverished communities and that at the university level, the infrastructure be improved so as allow instructors to better teach and prepare students for modern agriculture.
The discussion also touched on drought subsidy funding, food deserts, food banks, nutrition deprivation and the perennial problem of getting food to consumers.
“Fields of food are going to waste because there is no distribution system,” one participant said, lamenting a situation where people went hungry while farmers’ crops rotted in the fields because there wasn’t a way for the farmers to supply consumers directly and get recompense for their efforts.
Lawson ended the discussion by introducing his staff, speaking of their credentials and areas of expertise, and encouraging audience members to contact his office if they had any questions, concerns or issues.