Pennsylvania Ag Conference--An Opportunity for All
By Rick Santorum
Farmers and the agriculture industry have long been a central component of Pennsylvania's economic and social identity. Agriculture is deeply rooted in the heritage of our commonwealth, and the importance of farmers to Pennsylvania has not waned over time. So on March 28, I was honored to host the Pennsylvania Agriculture Conference on the Hill, an event that gave our farmers a chance to journey down to Washington, D.C. and meet with many of the government officials responsible for the direction of our nation's agriculture policy in the years to come.
In that vein, I'd like to start with how I see the direction of our agriculture policy, and how that direction affects Pennsylvania. To do so, we must first look at our policy as it currently stands.
The unfortunate truth is that the present Farm Bill does not serve Pennsylvania's farmers well. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) ranks Pennsylvania 19th in agricultural production, yet we are 29th in farm payments received under the Farm Bill currently in effect. This discrepancy is due to the mix of non-program crops that Pennsylvania produces. These crops, primarily fruit and vegetables known collectively as "specialty crops," do not benefit from the support programs available to crops like cotton, rice, corn, soy, and wheat--crops that make up almost 90% of subsidy payments under the 2002 Farm Bill.
This is a discrepancy that, if Pennsylvania farmers are to be competitive in the future--as they should--must be addressed. As a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, I have sponsored a specialty crops bill that would tackle this issue, and I intend to do so again as we approach the passage of the next Farm Bill.
Also vital to the future of Pennsylvania is that we reform the U.S. sugar program, which, through high import tariffs and tight marketing controls of domestic production, artificially elevates the price of sugar to consumers and processors in the state. More importantly, when we attempt to negotiate trade agreements to gain access to new markets for U.S. agriculture (truly the best way to assist our farmers), our products are less likely to be accepted into the markets of our trading partners if we refuse to allow them to send us their sugar. Our current policy stands in the away because of the quotas we impose on imported sugar.
Finally, it is crucial that we take a look at our nation's dairy policy. While I was able to extend the Milk Income Loss Contract (MILC) program through the end of the current Farm Bill, ensuring that Pennsylvania dairy farmers have a seat at the negotiating table, it is unlikely that a comparable program can be pushed through Congress again. The truth is that budget pressures and the natural competition between eastern and western dairies make another MILC extension unlikely. Western dairies think of MILC as a primarily eastern program, and, somewhat falsely, do not believe they benefit from it. We must retool the nationwide dairy support program completely, expanding the market for western dairy products so that the eastern market, on which Pennsylvania farmers depend, is not flooded by excess western milk.
During our Agricultural Conference, we were fortunate to hear from others, like Mike Johanns, the United States Secretary of Agriculture; Senator Saxby Chambliss of Georgia, Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry; and Ambassador Richard Crowder, from the United States Trade Representative's office. Each of these individuals offered his interpretation of the state of the agriculture industry, as well as his vision of where we must take agriculture policy moving forward. Each also emphasized the importance of the current negotiations taking place at the World Trade Organization, negotiations that will go a long way to determining how much our policy will change under the next Farm Bill. It was wonderful to have such a list of distinguished speakers, a list that also included Pennsylvania Representatives Don Sherwood and Tim Holden, and I thank each of them for taking time to join us last week.
Whenever there is an opportunity to get elected officials and the constituents our decisions most affect into a room together, it is an opportunity we must embrace. A chance to hear questions and concerns directly from those who make their living in agriculture and agribusiness is something that simply cannot be duplicated any other way. To every Pennsylvanian who made the trip to Washington to hear and be heard, to convey your priorities and to understand ours, let me just say thank you. And if there is one thing I'd like you to take away from the Agriculture Conference, and from this column, it is that your concerns, and the agriculture industry as a whole, are at the top of my priority list. You all are too important to Pennsylvania not to be.