Nearly 600 growers and allied industry representatives turned up on Panama City Beach in late July for the 13th Annual Southern Peanut Growers Conference to learn more about peanut production, the peanut market and government policy.
Oh...and to have a little fun at the beach.
The conference has grown each year and 2011 was no exception, despite record heat and drought over much of the Southeast growing region.
"We sold out more room nights than we've ever had, we had higher registration than we've ever had, and I really think we had one of the best conferences we've ever had," said Don Koehler, executive director of the Georgia Peanut Commission.
The speaker lineup held onto the audience until the last round of applause. Here are a few articles highlighting the event.
Speak Up and Speak Out
While growers pondered all things peanut at the beach, the nation's leaders were working out a deal to raise the debt ceiling. And everyone at the conference knew farm programs weren't only on the table; they were a centerpiece.
The question wasn't whether commodity programs would suffer more budget cuts. The fear was that the cuts could happen that week.
"This is a perfect storm. ... We have high prices. We have bad weather. A lot of us don't have a crop. And the government is broke," peanut lobbyist Bob Redding says. "This ride is going to get rough. It's not for anybody that has a weak stomach."
The total commodity portion is 20% of the funding under the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act of 2008, commonly known as the Farm Bill. That's $64 billion. Direct payments are $34 billion of that. Food and nutrition programs garner the other 80%.
"My fear is we're going to take such a hit in funding that farm policy will be revolutionary," says Mary Kay Thatcher, director of public policy for the American Farm Bureau.
The problem with using a machete to make broad cuts to agricultural programs isn't the amount of money. It's who's doing it. And how quickly.
Few people in Congress know anything about how commodity programs work, U.S. Rep. Steve Fincher, R-Tenn., says. Some ask the Tennessee cotton farmer if he's getting $2 a pound for his lint. (No, he isn't.) Some tell him the commodity program has to go.
"I say: 'What part of the farm program do you not like?'" Fincher says. "And they say, 'I don't know anything about it, but it needs cutting."
Given the chance, Fincher wants a one-year extension to the current farm bill. No other speaker even dared hope for such a gift.
"I think we would probably be better served writing a new farm bill in Spring 2013," Fincher said, nothing that would push the legislation past the Presidential election in fall 2012.
"I'm afraid if we have to write a farm bill in 2012, it will be consumed by politics,' Fincher said.
So where will the cuts happen?
Redding sees the Adjusted Gross Income limitation, direct payments and the separate payment limit for growers as prime targets for cuts. Thatcher isn't convinced direct payments are gone; she does believe the AGI ceiling will be lowered.
Ag leaders say what needs to happen before any policy is changed is U.S. Rep. Frank Lucas, chairman of the House ag committee, needs to have time to hold field hearings. If the ag committee doesn't have that time, cuts will be indiscriminate.
"It's unfortunate that folks without an ag background would make cuts to a program they know nothing about," says Ben Mosely, legislative assistant to U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.
Committee field hearings, Redding says, are essential to bond members of this committee, which is heavily weighted with newly elected officials, and to give farmers the opportunity to air their concerns. And farmers need to turn out so elected officials will understand farm family realities.
For instance, Thatcher points out that lowering the AGI to $250,000 doesn't significantly save the government any money. "But it's important to the Administration," Thatcher says.
What Congress needs to know is it's essential to farm families, Redding says.
"That amendment would wipe out 50% of our Southeast producers from farm program," he says. "Speak up. It's critical."
He urged growers to sign up for alerts from Americanpeanuts.com. Those signed up for the site are alerted when legislation that impacts farmers in general and peanut producers in particular is at a point where the voices of producers need to be heard. With a few clicks, those registered at the site can send pre-written or personal letters to the appropriate legislators.