Texas Commissioner of Agriculture Susan Combs said the upcoming farm bill should emphasize improved risk management and export assistance for a coalition of large agricultural states know as NFACT, encompassing New Mexico, Florida, Arizona, California and Texas.

Combs spoke during an NFACT listening session she hosted, in Austin, on the upcoming farm bill, which is scheduled to be reauthorized in 2002, but could be taken up by Congress as early as 2001. More than 40 agricultural organizations and individual farmers and ranchers spoke at the session, which is one of several meetings on the farm bill that will be held in the five NFACT states.

After recognizing common interests, like trade and the need for additional federal assistance for preventing the introduction of plant diseases and pests from across the border, the five states formed the NFACT coalition in 1999 by signing a Memorandum of Understanding, Combs said.

"Our five NFACT states are a fairly powerful agricultural force, in our own right," Combs said. "We account for 25% of all the nation's agricultural cash receipts. In total, our Congressional delegations makes up 27% of Congress. With this clout, we have come together to give our producers a strong, powerful and unified voice to address agricultural issues, in Washington, DC."

Each of the five states has experienced agricultural losses from weather disasters, but Texas drought has been reducing farmers' and ranchers' incomes since the last farm bill was reauthorized in 1996, combs said.

"In Texas, no one could have predicted that our farmers and ranchers would enter into a drought in 1996, when the last farm bill was enacted, and four years later, in 2000, still be suffering tremendous losses," the commissioner said. "Since 1996, drought has taken a $5 billion bite out of our farmers' and ranchers' pocketbooks.

"Arizona has experienced $1 million of agricultural losses, due to drought this past year. New Mexico has had $190 million in drought losses. In Florida, ag losses, due to drought, are more than $314 million," Combs said. "In California, the threat most recently has not been from weather, but from a bacterial plant disease, Pierce's Disease, and an insect--the glassy-winged sharpshooter--that carries it. This year, Pierce's Disease has threatened $14 billion of California's agricultural crops, including wine grapes and produce.

"Whether the threat is from plant diseases or weather, the practice of ad-hoc disaster assistance from Congress for our NFACT states has not been very efficient or effective," Combs said. "Clearly, we must come up with a better safety net for our producers."

The NFACT states also need continued assistance for developing export markets and for controlling the introduction of plant diseases and pests from other countries, Combs said.

"We are high volume trade states," she said. "And we essentially serve as a buffer zone protecting the rest of this nation's agriculture from the introduction of foreign pests and plant diseases."

The farm bill is a multi-year, multi-commodity federal support law that encompasses commodity programs, trade, rural development, farm credit, conservation, agricultural research, food and nutrition programs and marketing. Every few years, Congress reauthorizes, repeals or amends sections of the farm bill that are not part of permanent law. The last adjustment to the farm bill occurred with the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act of 1996, also known as the Freedom to Farm bill, which authorized reducing crop price supports through 2002 through gradually declining transition crop payments.

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