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National Ag Symposium Asks Tough Questions

More than 250 leaders from 26 states gathered in Athens, Ga., Aug. 25-27 to discuss the future of agriculture.

But it was hard to get past the present.

"Things are not well in rural America," declared Tommy Irvin, Georgia Commissioner of Agriculture. "If something is not done and done now, we'll lose tens of thousands of farmers across America. That's a certainty. You can count on it."

The urgency of a disastrous summer drought, low prices and high foreign tariffs brought out a parade of politicians, academic experts, farmers and business people.

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Photo: Janet Rodekohr

U.S. Senator Paul Coverdell presides over Senate ag committee hearing.

Senate Ag Committee Hearing

In fact, Georgia Senator Paul Coverdell prompted the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences to put together the National Symposium on the Future of American Agriculture.

After economic predictions and small-group talks to outline key issues, the symposium ended with a U.S. Senate Agricultural Committee field hearing, chaired by Coverdell.

"Agriculture is at the heart of our national security," Coverdell told the group. "It is a huge, significant component of the nation's economy, its balance of payments and its quality of life. You have given a mandate for all policy makers to be attentive to the general health of this sector."

Questions Cut Through Analysis

Agricultural economists, food scientists and other experts trotted out charts, graphs, statistics, theories and concepts. But Burke County farmer Cleve Mobley cut through the analysis with his own questions.

"How can American farmers compete against other countries that don't have the same regulations we have?" he asked. "If the American family farm dies, who will produce our foods? Corporations? Is the American family farmer subsidizing cheap food for the rest of the country?"

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File photo

UGA agricultural economist Robert Shulstad

Global Trade Issues

Robert Shulstad, a UGA agricultural economist and chair of the symposium, said all of the discussion boiled down to three primary issues.

"The No. 1 concern of participants was global trade issues," Shulstad said. "Prices are at the lowest levels in the past decade, primarily as a result of lost export demand. As the world economy strengthens, we expect demand to increase, and prices should go up. But we don't see much improvement before 2002."

Profitability, Ownership

The second concern was profitability and ownership.

More than 40 percent of farmers across the nation have significant cash-flow problems. Equity in farm equipment is declining, and land prices are expected to fall.

"Losses vary greatly by crop," Shulstad said. "But none of the row crops are predicted to be profitable in '99. And we expect very little improvement for 2000."

Unstable Prices, Income

The third area of concern was instability in prices and income. The price of cotton has dropped each year since 1995, and prices for corn, wheat and soybeans have fallen in each of the past three years. Record carry-over stocks have accumulated as U.S. and international production has continued to expand.

"This excess supply, coupled with the loss of export demand, has resulted in these low prices," Shulstad said.

Regions' Farmers Suffer

Growers in much of the Southeast and the Mid-Atlantic have suffered severe crop damage from the drought. The rest of the country will have a record harvest.

"Southeastern farmers are in the worst situation we've seen in years," Shulstad said. "They have low prices and very little to sell."

Symposium recommendations will be printed for the Congressional agricultural committees. Participants were urged to conduct similar state-level discussions.

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