By Raju Chebium
Alabama farmer Randall Beers is counting on House members from Southeastern states to work to protect peanut growers in the next farm bill.
The Tyler farmer, who planted peanuts on 360 acres this year, wants Congress to beef up safety-net programs that help growers absorb price declines and recover from natural disasters.
Legislation moving through the Senate wouldn't help peanut growers because it was written with Midwestern corn and soybean growers in mind, according to Beers and other growers.
Industry lobbyists are counting on the newly revived House Peanut Caucus to push their interests when the House writes its own version of the farm bill this summer.
"We don't need to depend on the federal government for everything, but we sure can't have all of our safety net taken away," Beers said. "I'm a fifth-generation farmer and this is certainly what I love to do, but it's certainly been a struggle lately to make ends meet."
Major state crop
Alabama has about 1,800 peanut farmers who plant on about 180,000 acres, according to Randy Griggs, executive director of the Alabama Peanut Producers Association.
The state's peanut industry generates about $500 million for the Alabama economy, Griggs said, adding that about half the nation's peanuts are grown within 100 miles of Dothan.
Rep. Martha Roby, R-Montgomery, and Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., are co-chairs of the House Peanut Caucus, a bipartisan group of 15 lawmakers from Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Mississippi and North Carolina.
The caucus is likely to grow as lawmakers from other peanut-growing states such as Texas and Oklahoma and Virginia come aboard.
Some contend safey net needed
Roby said the caucus is working on a wish list to ensure that he peanut industry is treated fairly during farm-bill negotiations.
"We want to make sure that we have a strong peanut caucus that can clearly lay out our objectives so we can be lock-armed going into the farm bill (negotiations)," she said. "We have to ensure that there is a safety net for our farmers that includes three things -- price protection, revenue protection and crop insurance."
Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Birmingham, said the caucus' goal is to make sure peanut farmers are on an equal footing with other growers.
"It's absolutely a part of our job to look for ways that our farming policy is fair and is constructed such that one region is not favored over another," she said.
Peanut growers say Congress is almost certain to end direct payments, a key safety-net program. They want lawmakers to create an alternative system in its place.
Under current law, growers receive direct payments of up to $36 a ton based on a formula that takes into account how much land they've farmed in the past and past crop yields. Critics say that means people who are no longer farming or aren't growing as much as before are still getting government checks.
The peanut industry is pushing for a beefed-up program of counter-cyclical payments, which are issued when crop prices drop below a certain level.
The floor price for peanuts now is $495 a ton. If the price drops below that amount, the government pays the difference. The peanut lobby wants Congress to increase that to $534 a ton.
Though the crop now fetches more than $1,000 a ton, Beers said prices are bound to plunge as more farmers rush to plant peanuts.
Congress should also increase the rate it uses -- $355 per ton -- for loans available to farmers who store their peanuts to sell them when prices climb, said George Jeffcoat, a grower near Dothan. He recommended upping that to $500 a ton.
Should taxpayers have to pay?
Craig Cox, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, said the peanut lobby is looking for ways to continue receiving taxpayer money after direct payments are eliminated.
"Why should taxpayers jump through hoops to ensure income for peanut farmers?" Cox said. He wants Congress to limit farm assistance to helping farmers get back on their feet after crippling natural disasters.
"Where we are headed in this farm bill is the taxpayer is going to be guaranteeing business income," he said.
"What we'd like to see is for farmers to feel like they can have a choice," he said. "If they can make it with a real easy insurance-type program, and that's what they want, fine. But if they feel like they need the security of a traditional program, then we'd like to keep something similar to what we've had in the past."