FARM BILL: Producers have high hopes for cotton as legislators ready for conference committee

FARM BILL: Producers have high hopes for cotton as legislators ready for conference committee

LUBBOCK, TX (KCBD) - Protections for this year's cotton crop have nearly expired and legislators on the national level are soon to come together to discuss what is in the future for agriculture as a whole.

The modified 2014 Farm Bill is set to expire at the end of September and producers around the area have put their confidence in the United States House of Representatives and Senate to come up with a new farm bill. Now both branches will have to draft a compromise bill and send it to the president in the months ahead.

Regional advocates see this next step as an imperative part of the protection of cotton and some of the subsidies attached because they have been fighting to put it back in the spotlight since the 2014 Farm Bill was passed, Steve Verett, executive vice president of Plains Cotton Growers Inc., said.

"To be honest, the biggest hurdle was getting back in the farm bill, which we did in February," Verett said.

It was not until February that cotton was put under the 2014 bill's Title 1 protections, meaning those who suffered losses would receive a payout. The initial bill, which was put into law in February of 2014,  left out cotton producers and forced them into the Stacked Income Protection Plan, known to many as STAX.

Producers' hopes for STAX quickly faded as payouts were providing little support – less than what Title 1 protections did, Verett said.

Title 1 programs would mean that low prices equal a benefit for producers on an individual basis. That would also mean that when a commodity went below a certain level the producer was paid, regardless of what happened on a farm.

"When cotton went out, we didn't have that anymore. STAX was an insurance program that was county-based," Verett said. "It depended on what happened in that county in a given year – it was based upon yield and price."

Since cotton was let back into the category of a Title 1 commodity, area producers are hoping to keep it that way, lobbying to either keep or make protections better.

Over the past three years Verett and other staff members with Plains Cotton Growers have put together a political action committee to aid in educating members of Congress about the need for helpful cotton policies, he said. Most of the time they have to target those members of Congress who are predisposed to agriculture and are empathetic to the needs of national producers.

Some provisions in the House's bill are a bit more empathetic to the South Plains on weather-related provisions and the Senate's bill would help in nutrition title, Kody Bessent, vice president of Operations and Legislative Affairs for Plains Cotton Growers, said.

Both bills also have policies that protect producers from systemic price decline and trade titles, that would help in export initiatives. They also have healthy crop insurance programs that would help if there were any catastrophic weather events.

"Now they have an opportunity to go to conference and work out the difference in the next couple of months. That's been the driving factor in this process, to at least get a bill through both chambers," Bessent said. "Something that musters up enough votes in both chambers and now they just simply have to work out some of the differences and achieve a compromise package that both chambers will support in the end."

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The biggest difference now is how cotton is categorized on nutrition titles, he said.

Of course, there are some fears in what both the House and Senate may not do. If there is no bill signed by the president by the end of September then there will have to be short-term solutions made that will make it hard for lenders to provide operating money for producers, he said.

"And so, having a viable, long-term, five-year bill enacted on time is critical," Bessent said. "That way we can provide certainty to producers, their lenders and other individuals in the community that utilize farm policy programs or the nutrition programs as well."

But for the area, it is an uphill battle in convincing legislators that emphasis on cotton, possibly agriculture, is important for producers around the nation. And because of the crop diversity in the U.S., it is hard to get the right formula for commendable agriculture policy.

"But we have to understand that when it comes to agriculture policy, the bulk of people in Congress and the House of Representatives don't really care about agriculture," Verett said. "And then when you get down to cotton there's even less people that care about cotton, specifically."

At this point staffers with Plains Cotton Growers are confident that this bill will be wrapped up and passed through the president in time, Verett said. As of now, the bills are farther in the process than they have been in year past.

Because of the speed the Senate passed its bill in, there seems to be a heightened sense of urgency in getting a new Farm Bill passed, Bessent said. That is also a bit reflective of the strains the farm economy is in right now.

"I don't want to leave the impression that we think this farm bill for all farmers everywhere and all commodities is great and wonderful because there's some that would disagree with that," Verett said. "From a cotton perspective and from most people's perspective here on the High Plains of Texas – all of it is kind of relative. When you've been sitting on the outside looking in for the last four years and now that you're back inside of the tent it looks a lot better."

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