USA Rice takes a look back at 50 years of ag advocacy in Washington, D.C.
As Rice Farming celebrates its golden anniversary, I’d like to offer congratulations and take a brief look at what the agriculture landscape in Washington, D.C., has looked like over the past 50 years.
Between Rice Farming’s first issue and today, we have witnessed 11 Farm Bills, 15 agriculture secretaries, and 11 House and Senate Agriculture Committee chairmen.
Every agriculture secretary has a story. JFK’s Orville Freeman—secretary when Rice Farming was born—helped start food stamps. Richard Nixon’s Earl Butz told farmers to “plant fence row to fence row,” but he had to quit the job because he also told too many stories.
Secretary John Block, under President Ronald Reagan, worked to prevent the 1980s farm financial crisis—remember PIK or Payment in Kind—but we still saw the largest exodus from farming since the Great Depression. Bill Clinton’s Mike Espy became the first African American agriculture secretary and under George W. Bush, Ann Veneman became the first woman.
Clinton’s Dan Glickman went on to become chief executive officer of the motion picture industry, and Bush’s Ed Schafer was on stage for not one but two Farm Bill vetoes, the first since 1956.
Iconic Ag Committee chairmen
The House Agriculture Committee has produced some iconic chairmen over the same period, including Harold Cooley (D-N.C.) who was chairman when Rice Farming was first published and who holds the record as the longest serving chairman. Tom Foley (D-Wash.) chaired the committee before becoming the speaker. The current chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), also chaired the House Ag Committee, the only member to chair both.
Does anyone remember Sen. Allen Ellender (D) of Houma, La.? He chaired the Senate Agriculture Committee when Rice Farming began and was a strong advocate for the free school lunch program.
Vermont’s Patrick Leahy (D)—the longest serving senator in office today—and North Carolina’s Jesse Helms (R) also carved big figures. In more recent times, so have Mississippi’s Thad Cochran (R), Georgia’s Saxby Chambliss (R) and Arkansas’ Blanche Lincoln (D).
Farm Bill evolution
Revolution takes a back seat to evolution when it comes to farm policy. The 1970 law loosened production controls. The 1973 law further loosened them and introduced target prices with the goal of meeting worldwide demand, especially from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, whose purchase of U.S. exports was dubbed the “Great Grain Robbery.”
The 1977 law increased supports, and the 1981 law made changes around the edges. The 1985 Farm Bill lowered support while introducing new conservation programs, and the 1990 law froze support while adding planting flexibility.
The 1996 Farm Bill sharply increased planting flexibility while reducing support, and the 2002 law sharply increased support without reducing flexibility. The 2008 law made modest changes while the 2014 Farm Bill was a departure from 2008 by repealing direct payments.
During the past 50 years, changes in farm policy have slowly unfolded from production controls aimed at parity prices to a market-oriented policy aimed at exports.
No fewer than six of the past 10 Farm Bills benefited from an Agriculture Committee chairman hailing from a rice state, seven of 11 when 2018 is included. In others, rice has had strong representation, including Mississippi’s Cochran who has served on every Farm Bill conference over the past 31 years.
Keeping a strong U.S. farm policy has been a top mission of USA Rice, and covering it all over the last half century has been Rice Farming.
Thank you for a strong 50 years and looking forward to the next 50!