AUSTIN, Texas -- Continuing his series of policy meetings, President-elect Bush met with agricultural leaders Friday to hear the concerns of the nation's farmers. Production by America's farmers is an issue of national security, he said.
"A country that can feed itself is a country that is more secure in its borders," Bush said.
Bush introduced to leaders of national farm groups and agricultural officials from several states his nominees for secretary of agriculture, Ann Veneman, and head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Christie Todd Whitman.
"We had a wide-ranging discussion, We know, I know, how important agriculture is to our country," Bush said. "There are a lot of issues farmers now face. I'm worried about the family farmer and people who make a living off the land."
The new administration faces several potential headaches in agriculture. Federal farm subsidies continue to rise while commodity prices have been stuck in a 3-year-old slump. Congress returns to work early next year hoping to rewrite a farm program that expires in 2002.
The new administration needs to keep Europe's mad-cow scare from spreading to the United States. It also faces court battles over the Clinton administration's food safety initiatives and the Agriculture Department's treatment of minority farmers.
Bush mostly listened without making specific promises, said Tony Anderson, president of the American Soybean Association.
"President-elect Bush made it very clear that there would not be a wish-list that would be fulfilled, you know, what we all want for Christmas," Anderson said.
The appointment of Veneman drew praise from the groups at the meeting, who said they are counting on her to help open foreign markets to American farm products.
"Our country is wide open to other countries," said Florida Commissioner of Agriculture Bob Crawford. "And yet, we still haven't got the penetration as well as we should, like in the European market. So these trade issues are going to be critical."
The new farm bill also will be critical to agriculture, Crawford said.
The 1996 farm program was designed to phase out government support programs but the decline in commodity prices two years ago made that difficult.
Farm groups are now looking for ways to provide new forms of income assistance to producers. Direct government payments to farmers were expected to exceed $23 billion this year, three times the 1996 level.
"The right to farm is going to be redubbed the right to fail," Crawford said. "You can't keep subsidizing people to overproduce. The federal government should stand as a safety net to keep people from going out of business. But a system that predictably creates a welfare state is not good for agriculture."
America's black farmers want to know they will have a voice in the new administration, said John W. Boyd Jr., president of the National Black Farmers Association.
"That we were even asked to be at the meeting was a good sign," said Boyd, who urged Bush to help minority farmers get loans needed to plant crops and stay in business.
"We have to be included in the loan programs," he said. "The trade thing and all that stuff is excellent. But if you don't' have a loan to plant your crops with, the trade thing and all that other stuff is not going to help. You have to have access to capital."
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