By Mike Conaway
Cotton farmers in the U.S. are facing a crisis. Extreme drought, predatory trade practices by other countries and the lack of a viable safety net are threatening the livelihoods of thousands of farm families. While the farm economy is experiencing the largest three-year percentage decline in net farm income since the Great Depression, a whopping 56%, the cotton industry is facing an existential threat.
Secretary Vilsack says he does not have authority under the farm bill to declare cottonseed as an other oilseed. There are a variety of reasons why that is simply not the case.
The Secretary argues Congress removed cotton from Agriculture Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) in the 2014 farm bill and, thus, his hands are tied. Here’s what Congress actually did: As a result of a World Trade Organization settlement with Brazil, Congress removed cotton lint from ARC and PLC. Cottonseed has not historically been a covered commodity, and Congress never discussed adding cottonseed to the list. Rather, Congress left intact the Secretary’s authority to designate any oilseed as an “other oilseed.”
The Secretary argues canons of statutory construction prevent him from acting. That is not the case. The statute in question states an “other oilseed” includes “any oilseed designated by the Secretary.” There is only one canon of statutory construction necessary to move forward with designating cottonseed as an “other oilseed:” the ordinary meaning of the statutory language. This is the canon the Supreme Court looks to before all others.
The Secretary argues he cannot designate cottonseed as an oilseed because the provision is reserved for “emerging oilseeds.” However, the Secretary imposes this limitation on himself. The farm bill defines an oilseed as “a crop of sunflower seed, rapeseed, canola, safflower, flaxseed, mustard seed, crambe, sesame seed or any other oilseed designated by the Secretary.” The farm bill does not restrict this authority to “emerging oilseeds.”
The Secretary further claims he cannot designate cottonseed as an oilseed because USDA made cottonseed eligible for Stacked Income Protection Plan (STAX). While USDA might have accommodated the industry’s request, the law says nothing about cottonseed being eligible for STAX.
Finally, the Secretary argues Congress did not designate cottonseed as a covered commodity because of the cost of doing so. That is simply not correct. Congress never considered adding cottonseed as a covered commodity. That prospect arose after passage of the 2014 farm bill and the predatory trade practices of China and India started decimating cotton markets, rendering STAX ineffective.
To his credit, the Secretary is not without solutions to offer, but they are riddled with real problems.
The first solution involves Congress lifting a prohibition on his ability to use Section 32 funds in emergency situations. This requires an act of Congress, which takes time—something we are short on. This is also unnecessary because the Secretary has all the authority he needs to act now.
The second solution regarding ginning cost share is more of a Band-Aid than a cure. While the Secretary has the authority to deliver assistance now, it would not stop the bleeding.
All of the smoke and mirrors have been frustrating to those of us who are deeply concerned for all of the livelihoods at stake. We would appreciate the Secretary fully leveraging the authorities available to him.
What do you think about designating cotton as an oilseed? Please send your thoughts to FeedbackFJ@farmjournal.com