Each August, Congressional members head back to their districts for an annual five-week recess extending into the first half of September. And for five weeks, there are no House Floor debates, no Conferences between the House and Senate, and no House votes. It’s five weeks of home, allowing us time to visit and inform constituents about impactful federal issues while also gathering feedback about how we can better represent our districts.
One of my highlights each recess revolves around our biggest industry in Arkansas’ First District — agriculture.
First District agriculture accounts for about $5 billion in products sold, with about 22,000 growers harvesting or raising those products on nearly eight million acres. In turn, many of those growers directly supply gainful employment to residents of our local communities while indirectly supplying employment for many agricultural and local businesses.
Agriculture, indeed, exerts a heavy influence on our primarily rural district, extending as far as our culture. It’s common to see pickup trucks sporting logos of their owners’ favorite implements or to see “farm” hats worn around town. And then there’s all the places having “rice,” “cotton,” or some other ag product in their name.
Even if we don’t farm, many of us still identify with it.
Consequently, sometime during each August, my office begins a farm tour, lasting at least a week and extending into as many of our district’s 30 counties as we can manage. This year, we visited a wide range of agricultural production and businesses in 12 counties, where I saw thriving crops spattered across the district. Talking with the men and women who grow them showed me the pride they take in producing high-quality food and fiber.
I also heard concerns they have for the future of farming.
Federal regulations, such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s “Waters of the United States” rule and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Critical Habitat Designations for two mussel species in Arkansas, continue to cast doubtful shadows on a First District producer’s ability to farm. The concerns are that even if these regulations allow farming operations to take place, they’re so restrictive and cost prohibitive that it makes no sense to continue producing.
And then there’s the age issue.
The average age of a U.S. farmer currently sits at 58. So, while we undoubtedly value and need our older producers, they readily admit they won’t produce for too much longer. We need younger people invested in agriculture; people like First District peanut grower Steven Jackson, who I met while on a field tour in Lawrence County. Steven and young people like him are the future of our food security, and I will push Washington to pay attention to the gray hairs on our current workforce.
So, thirty, forty, fifty, or more years from now, people will still talk about the importance of First District agriculture. And we may even see that occasional “farm” bumper sticker or hat around town.