When it comes to grains, it’s a bad time to grow just about anything.
Prices are low, surpluses will hurt the sales of next year’s crops, Australia and Canada are snatching up the foreign markets, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture isn’t doing enough to sell U.S. produce abroad, Washington growers say.
U.S. Representative George Nethercutt met with about 40 Eastern Washington farmers Saturday to gauge what he can do to help.
The Republican congressman from Spokane is a member of the House Agriculture Subcommittee and has influence on the USDA’s budget. If the department isn’t serving the farmers, maybe cutting its funding could change its course, Nethercutt said.
“I think the trend is to be very aggressive about these departments that don’t do what they’re supposed to do,” he said. “You’re not going to get the money if you’re not going to do the job.”
Some of the farmers told Nethercutt the USDA should either change or step aside.
“I see the archaic and lethargic overburdened way our government uses to market our wheat abroad. It’s too bulky,” said Mary Dye of Pomeroy. “Put money into the private sector to do the marketing.”
Others said that even finding foreign markets wouldn’t help.
“A lot of times, I find it’s a waste of money developing new markets,” said Bruce Nelson of Farmington.
“We have Australia, we have Canada, we have the Europeans that come in and take it away.”
Roger Pennell of Garfield said, “There is no optimism in agriculture right now.” He explained that farmers struggle to find crops with which they won’t lose money.
Forsaking his politician’s suit for a plaid shirt and slacks, Nethercutt stood before the group at the Harvester Restaurant in Spangle. He told them Republicans and Democrats alike want to cut funding for agriculture. “They’re from urban areas and they don’t give a hoot about farmers,” Nethercutt said.
“But we need help, aggressive help in my opinion, from our government,” he said. When the United States offers aid to needy countries, it could do it with the condition that those countries buy U.S. wheat, the congressman said. It could also lift the embargoes on small countries like Cuba and Iraq to give farmers more places to sell their produce.
Programs such as the International Monetary Fund, designed to help economically troubled countries such as those in Asia, will help U.S. farmers, Nethercutt said. “Some Republicans are saying it’s a bailout,” he said. “I’m trying to grab them by the lapels and say ‘This is stupid. It hurts agriculture if we don’t have those additional tools.”’
Even with existing tools, such as export aid, the USDA has offered too little too late, he said.
Department of Agriculture officials disagree.
“We have been using our export credit program very aggressively - more so than any time in history - to protect our markets in Asia,” said Paul Drazek, assistant to the secretary of agriculture, in a recent interview. “It’s even to the point that we’ve been criticized by some of our trading partners.”
The USDA isn’t using all the tools at its disposal, particularly the Export Enhancement Program, which would channel money to allow U.S. wheat to compete with other countries’ lower priced wheat, Nethercutt said.
“It’s true EEP hasn’t been used in three years,” Drazek said. “But Congress has dropped it to $150 million. To the minds of most economists, that’s totally inadequate to do anything and could have the adverse effect of driving down prices to farmers.”
Still, the country is falling behind in agricultural exports, Nethercutt said. If they want that to change, farmers need to make themselves heard on Capitol Hill. “If you scream and yell and make your presence known, it’s going to have an impact.”
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