Oklahoma Rep. Frank Lucas talks turkey … and milk, food stamps, ethanol and getting along with his peers

By Chris Casteel

The Oklahoman

WASHINGTON — Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Cheyenne, is the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and one of the most influential voices in Congress on farm policy.

The 53-year-old rancher has been in the House since 1994 and is the longest serving House member in the Oklahoma delegation. He has been trying for more than a year to get a new farm bill signed into law to set the rules for crop production and nutrition programs but has run into numerous obstacles, including House Republicans’ insistence on major cuts to the food stamp program and differences with the Senate on support levels for commodities such as corn and wheat.

In an interview on Capitol Hill last week, Lucas talked about taxpayer support for farmers and other topics. Some of the answers were edited for brevity.

Q: Thanksgiving week is, of course, a big one for food purchases. Tell me how federal farm policy affects what people will buy for their big dinners.

A: (It ensures) that producers are able to raise that wheat that goes into dinner rolls, that they’re still able to raise the corn and soybeans that feed out those wonderful turkeys we have or that nice ham or, if you’re lucky, that slice of prime roast beef. All those things are there in an affordable, consistent, safe fashion because of the American farmer and that safety net that helps him and her when they deal with the banker, when they deal with the landlord, when they deal with the potential purchase of their products.

Q: Most people would probably agree that it’s not desirable for farmers to experience catastrophic losses. But the question here is why the government should intervene if they do.

A: Well, you only have to look at the last century to see times when the federal government was not involved, when the policies weren’t right. My grandparents were young men and women in the Depression. They had to deal in the southern plains in the middle of the United States with a horrendous drought. They got caught up in the collapse of the price of agricultural products, a collapse in the price of their land. Everything they defined as an asset overnight seemingly became worthless. Had they had crop insurance as we have now to address weather, it would have softened the blow.

My parents were young men and women in the 1950s. We didn’t have the economic problems they had in the Depression in the 1930s. But in my part of Oklahoma, we went through a horrendous four-year drought, which — just like the ’30s — drove more people off the land, reducing the number of producers. But ultimately we got through that weather pattern.

I came home from college in the early 1980s just in time to watch the worst economic meltdown in rural America since the Great Depression — another generation of people driven off the farm.

So you see, some would argue that the government shouldn’t be involved in any way in helping provide a safety net for the production of food and fiber. Some would say government shouldn’t be involved in anything. But the bottom line is this: You might not have to renew the subscription to your television cable, you might be able to not go to that football game or baseball game and be OK, you might even be able to darn your socks and put a patch on your sleeve … but we all have to eat.

And making sure that we have a sufficient supply of that domestically produced food and fiber — that’s what these policies are all about.

Q: In the late ’90s, this committee tried to move toward a more market-oriented philosophy called Freedom to Farm. What happened to that?

A: Well, it was surprisingly successful, but it took a lot longer than people expected. (Before 1996) your safety net was based on what you produced — you had to have a history in that particular crop. You couldn’t switch crops. You couldn’t do things differently. You had to keep raising that crop, raising it in the fashion you’d been raising it … to qualify for your loan, to qualify for your deficiency payment, all that sort of stuff.

The ’96 law said, ‘Farm what you want to farm the way you want to farm it.’ And to help you transition, we shifted from the old system over to the direct annual payments. About the same time, Congress joined the World Trade Organization, ratified the NAFTA treaty with Canada and Mexico and opened us up to the world markets. Lo and behold, I think optimistic people thought that access to those markets would be all that we’d ever need.

But alas they forgot about weather, they forgot about economic crises both at home and abroad, they forgot about all the things that still drive the cycles.

And the main focus nowadays is more crop insurance … it provides that basic safety net. And I would argue with a consistent supply of food and fiber — some might say a slight oversupply of food and fiber — the consumer eats cheap, eats well, eats consistently. If you want to put your dinner to the whim of the market, then I guess you’ll take a chance.

As for me, I always want something on that shelf at the store when I go there.

Q: Without getting too deep into the weeds of federal dairy programs, does the government effectively set the price of milk?

A: The short answer is I think the policy is an effort to make sure that there’s not a total collapse in the price of milk. Dairy goes back even before the 1933 act.

Originally, it was an effort to make sure there’d be enough fresh milk in all regions of the country. Now that’s before modern shipping and the wondrous things like ultra-pasteurization we have now. But it is a controversial subject now. And it pits — using broad phrases — the littler dairymen perhaps in the Northeast against the mega-dairymen in the West and some in the Midwest. It is — at least in my experience — the toughest part of farm bill policy because everyone who has an interest has an absolute interest and virtually no one seems to have any flexibility.

Q: But what’s the answer to the question? Do you think the government effectively sets the price of milk?

A: I don’t think the government should, but I think the government has the responsibility to make sure that it’s available. And avoiding wild swings in price helps to provide stability.

Q: Isn’t that, then, the very definition of central planning?

A: Well, I would just say this: You have to assess the advantages that certain policies have to the country as a whole against the costs. If having enough to eat and having it be affordable is more of a cost than letting the market run its course, then I guess ultimately the consumer has to decide.

But right now they’ve been so spoiled by successful policies that date back literally to the 1930s, I’m not sure they’d be ready for a shock if they had to pay the part of their disposable income in this country that other countries do — that’s sometimes two, three, four times as high. We spend a lot of money — that other people around this world spend on food — on a lot of fun things and a lot of consumer goods and a lot of lifestyle issues. I’d say the American farmer is actually subsidizing a good bit of the other economy.

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