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By SID SALTER
Fresh from winning selection as the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee for the 113th Congress, Mississippi U.S. Sen. Thad Cochranâ€™s decision about whether or not heâ€™ll seek re-election in 2014 becomes even more meaningful to Mississippians.
Agriculture is a $7.5 billion business in Mississippi. There are some 30 million acres of the stateâ€™s land mass dedicated to farming or forestry. Agribusiness provides some 40,000 direct or indirect jobs and thatâ€™s just those involved in farming or related jobs as a primary occupation.
But thatâ€™s only part of the story. As a senator from the poorest state in the union, the Senate Agriculture Committee also holds sway over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) â€” the federal program that my generation knew as â€śfood stampsâ€ť â€” a program that fed some 650,744 people in our state in 2012.
Mississippiâ€™s unfortunate impoverishment makes this state ground zero for the SNAP program. A staggering 21 percent of Mississippiâ€™s population participates in the program.
Between the business side of agriculture and the humanitarian need to fight what Americans once called the â€śwar on poverty, perhaps no member of Congress has had more experience in seeking to formulate national agricultural and nutrition policies that worked both sides of that winding policy street than has Cochran.
Cochran has served on the Senate Agriculture committee since 1978. He chaired the committee from 2003 to 2005. During that time, Cochran has fought at least three farm bill battles that sought to walk the tight rope between fiscal responsibility on federal nutrition policy and practical policies that gave the nationâ€™s farmers a fighting chance to make a profit.
From his new vantage point as the ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, Cochran will once again renew that fight to determine whether U.S. farm policy shifts finally away from direct cash payments of commodity crop subsidies and price supports to new forms of subsidized crop insurance. The move on Capitol Hill away from crop subsidies and direct payments has been slow and inexorable, but visible all the same.
Specifically, Cochran is now in a position to help determine the outcome of a farm bill fight that has degenerated into a sectional fight among farmers. Members of Congress from the Midwest and members from the South have spent the last year fighting over whether this nationâ€™s farm policy will favor crops grown primarily in the South over crops that are more prevalent in the Midwest.
At stake are Republican efforts to save $23 billion in agriculture spending vs. what many Southern farmers see as an effort to nail down profitability for some Midwest farmers by taking it out of the financial hides of Southern farmers growing different crops.
Or to put in more directly, Southern farmers who raise rice and peanuts are poised to see if the federal government gives them a smaller, less substantive farm safety net than that being afforded to farmers in the Midwest producing corn and soybeans.
Thatâ€™s the business side of the fight. On the humanitarian side of the farm bill fight is what happens to the SNAP program and how that impacts states with large poor populations â€” stateâ€™s like Cochranâ€™s home state.
Historically, Cochran has risen to that fight and been a voice of both fiscal reason and human compassion.
Sid Salter is a syndicated columnist. Contact him at 662-507-8004 or firstname.lastname@example.org.