For Vilsack, the Time is Now

Beck Barnes

From Cotton Grower Magazine – March 2016


One thing that is immediately recognizable about House Agriculture Committee Chair Mike Conaway (R-TX) is that he is a gifted politician.

He has a firm handshake. He looks you in the eye. He remembers names. All of these seemingly trivial things are great attributes in a politician. It’s easy to see how he could be an effective ally on Capitol Hill. So I understood why the ongoing conversation between he and Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack regarding the oilseed designation was described as “amicable.” He and Vilsack have a great working relationship. It is probably in everyone’s best interest for Conaway to remain diplomatic in his dealings with Vilsack, even when they disagree – as they do on this issue. You catch more flies with honey, as they say.

Fortunately for me, I am not restrained by the customs of the political arena. So I’m free to say what I please, and I’ll do so now: Tom Vilsack needs to stop overanalyzing semantics with his lawyers and actually provide some value to America’s beleaguered cotton industry.

Cotton producers in the United States have clung on to their livelihoods for the past several years in the face of vanishing support from Washington, DC. It’s no secret that cotton’s infrastructure is disappearing. The number of gins left in the United States dwindles by the year. In 2016, American producers could very well plant the lowest amount of cotton acres this nation has seen in over three decades.

All of the sentences in the previous paragraph are intricately related to each other. And none of them should catch Secretary Vilsack off guard. The National Cotton Council has sent a slew of delegates and representatives to Washington, DC to make sure cotton’s plight is understood by the federal government.

My question to Vilsack is a simple one: At what point do you decide the industry is worthy of federal relief? How many more gins need to consolidate? How many more farms need to go out of business? As a farmer friend of mine recently wondered, has the Secretary ever considered the prospect of wearing polyester underwear? It’s not a pleasant thought.

I understand the need to proceed with caution when weighing the issue of designating cotton as an “other oilseed.” Nobody is suggesting we thumb our nose at the WTO. But, ultimately, the goal of the American government should be to protect its own citizens. If the law is so constrictive that we are unable to scratch out a living under it, then we need to throw that law out and start all over again.

Luckily though, it shouldn’t have to come to that. As Conaway has pointed out in his dealings with Vilsack, the farm bill grants him full authority to make this designation. For all the lawyers involved here, the language is pretty straightforward. Vilsack has the authority to make this call.

If leadership is about making tough decisions, then Vilsack has an opportunity to truly prove his worth. The spotlight is on the stage, Tom. Your time is now.