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WEDNESDAY, FEBRUARY 21, 2007
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North Alabama farmers addressed their concerns with Congressman Bud Cramer at a meeting in Belle Mina on Tuesday.
Daily photo by Gary Lloyd
North Alabama farmers addressed their concerns with Congressman Bud Cramer at a meeting in Belle Mina on Tuesday.

Farm future on their minds
Farmers hit Cramer with questions on trade, immigration and government energy policy

By Holly Hollman
hhollman@decaturdaily.com 340-2445

BELLE MINA — Farmers have to be concerned about more than drought, flood and pests.

Questions about immigration, trade issues and the government's energy policy are among those Limestone and Madison county farmers directed to U.S. Rep. Bud Cramer, D-Huntsville, on Tuesday.

The farmers met with Cramer at the Tennessee Valley Research and Extension Center to discuss the reauthorization of the 2002 Farm Security and Rural Investment Act. This legislation, commonly called the Farm Bill, will expire at September's end.

Dennis Bragg, a Toney farmer, told Cramer he plans to shift 1,000 acres of cotton to corn due to the buzz surrounding ethanol as an alternative fuel source.

Keeping eye on Congress

Cramer said farmers are watching Congress and its attitude toward energy policies to see if transitioning from a crop like cotton to crops like soybeans, grain and corn for fuel production is worth it.

Bragg said America's farmers can sell food to Asia, or sell the soybean, grain and corn here for fuel. Bragg said eventually China, which has taken over the textile industry, will have to decide between producing so much of its own cotton or producing more food.

If Congress helps farmers here with irrigation needs, then they will be in position to sell a better quality of cotton at a higher price when China cuts back it's product.

"We need an open energy market," Bragg said. "Nobody in this room, or outside this room, wants to buy energy from the Middle East."

One farmer said his fear is that there is no market for alternative fuels and no place locally where he could buy ethanol or soybean-based diesel. Cramer said he could see in the future Congress mandating the use of alternative fuel sources, but added he thinks Congress first would look at incentives.

"The situation with Iran, the Middle East, blockades could occur or other issues could occur with the network of oil suppliers," Cramer said. "It's an uncertain world, so we might find energy policy moving faster."

Transitioning to energy production crops is not cheap, farmers said.

Danny Crawford of Athens, the executive director of the Alabama Farm Service Agency, told Cramer the state's farmers need a cost share program for irrigation. That way, farmers could draw water from creeks in the winter and store it in reservoirs.

Bragg said for local farmers to make the transition, infrastructure has to change. There will be the expense of not only irrigation, but grain bins and the equipment needed to harvest and plant.

"If you're going to tell the country we're going to grow energy, we need to have financial input from you," Bragg told Cramer. "I wouldn't be here (Tuesday) if I didn't have irrigation. I'd be trying to hold an auction."

In addition to energy policy, farmers also are watching how Congress will address immigration.

"Our immigration laws have not been enforced," Cramer said. "There are people here we're not keeping up with. We're allowing people to freeload and get benefits."

He said with terrorists, drug problems and the unsecured borders that the government has "got to be tough with the system that's in place." Cramer added, that the government must be realistic with the guest worker issue, which impacts farmers.

Farmers told Cramer they rely on migrant workers to work in the cotton gins, nurseries and poultry farms.

"I'm not for amnesty. Let them (Hispanics) come here legally to work because people here get government handouts and won't work," one farmer said and added, "Spanish people have never bombed a building."

Bragg said Hispanics offer what farmers want in workers.

"If they will walk across the desert, not to work at a good job on the ( Redstone) Arsenal, but to lay brick, it speaks to their character," he said. "And they're raising their families to be better than themselves. People would be OK with that if they were carrying their own weight and paying into the system."

To ensure farmers have the needed labor force and that force is here legally, Bragg said the government should have a policy to deal with migrant workers based on the nation's unemployment rate.

"If unemployment is low, then the temporary labor door opens wider," he said. "If unemployment goes up, close the door."

Cramer said he wanted to learn the farmers' concerns and suggestions so that he can be an advocate for them in Washington. Discussions are underway on the Farm Bill, Cramer said, and the goal is to have it ready by September's end.

However, there are challenges, he said. A financial challenge that Cramer called the Big Monster, is the war. There is an expectation, he said, that the administration will be after commodity subsidies, wanting a more severe cap.

"I have no reason to think (the administration) will be more successful with that than they have in the past," Cramer said.

Another challenge, he said, is with newer members of Congress who may make power plays for the Midwest farm region.

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