By Michael Klein, USA Rice
WASHINGTON, DC -- More than 140 rice farmers, merchants, and millers participated in USA Rice's annual Government Affairs Conference here this week to share policy positions and priorities with Members of Congress, their staffs, and Trump Administration officials.
There were 54 meetings with individual Congressional offices and key committees including at the House Ways & Means and Senate Finance Committees.
"We had a very strong showing from all segments of the industry and all the major rice states, and our messages were well-received in all of the offices we visited," said Blake Gerard, a Missouri rice farmer and chairman of USA Rice Farmers.
"It's important to thank our Members for their past help and express our concerns about the future," said Gerard's fellow Missourian Rance Daniels. "What I find most encouraging is when we express those concerns to our home state Member and they are able to share with us the work they've already started on the issue."
Trade dominated many of the conversations.
"Given the Trump Administration's focus on trade, it was important for us to be here to let Members know that maintaining and expanding export markets is vital for us - from Japan and Iraq, to our top market of Mexico, and what was once our top market, Cuba," explained Robert Trahan of Falcon Rice Mill in Crowley, Louisiana and chairman of the USA Rice Millers' Association.
The looming Farm Bill and pending nomination of Governor Sonny Perdue to be Secretary of Agriculture were also central to discussions.
"[House Agriculture Committee] Chairman Conaway is pretty determined to get the new Farm Bill in place by the time the current bill expires in 2018," said Linda Raun, a Texas rice farmer who was instrumental for the rice industry in the development of the 2014 Farm Bill. "They've already had more than 80 hearings which is good, but as the Chairman told us, there are some things that work really well in the current bill, particularly for rice, but there are also some things that need fixing, so it is going to be interesting."
"One of the things we told Members we met with is that we feel very good about Governor Perdue because he understands commodity agriculture, the importance of trade, and the plight of farmers today," said Joe Mencer, an Arkansas rice farmer. "We only heard back positive things about the Governor and expect he'll be confirmed, which is good because there are a lot of important positions within USDA that the new Secretary needs to fill."
One of the highlights of the USA Rice conference is the unity that is on display.
"The fact that we come here together - farmers, millers, merchants, and end users - to talk to our government with one voice is really important," said Mississippi rice farmer Kirk Satterfield. "Of course there's strength in numbers, but the way the country and Congress seem divided now, I think us coming here and showing our leaders that we unite for our common good is encouraging, and frankly, I hope sets a good example."
Flooding and mandatory evacuations at home colored the experience for many of the California participants.
"Almost all of our Hill meetings began with Oroville Dam situation," said Nicole Van Vleck, a rice farmer from Yuba City, California. "But frankly, that provided us with the opportunity to drive home the point to the Members we met that water fixes are extremely important in California, especially additional surface storage, Sites Reservoir, and the need for regulatory agencies to take a serious look at our Salmon Recovery Plan as a way to save salmon and still allow farmers to farm."