U.S. Congressman Ted Poe spoke passionately on the floor of the House of Representatives on Thursday night in honor of Small Business Week. The thirty minute Special Order was devoted to the plight of the Texas rice farmer and the considerable impact of limited subsidies and restricted markets.

Since entering Congress this session, Representative Poe has called for the expansion of U.S. rice trade to countries such as Iraq and Cuba, which would provide increased opportunities for Texas rice farmers. During his trip to Iraq in January, Congressman Poe met with James Smith, Counselor of Agricultural Affairs in the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad and has also issued a Dear Colleague in Congress to rally the support of fellow members to sign a letter to USDA Secretary Mike Johanns requesting that the Export Credit Guarantee Program for Iraq be reinstated. The letter currently has 10 co-signers and has been forwarded to the USA Rice Federation and the U.S. Rice Producers. Due to the debts that Iraq incurred under the regime of Saddam Hussein, the USDA is hesitant toward offering credit protections to financial institutions that extend money to the Iraqi Grain Board.

During the 1980s, Iraq was the primary market for U.S. rice. Comprising 80% of Iraqs rice imports, U.S. rice sales peaked at 500,000 metric tons. On account of Saddam Hussein and sanctions on Iraq, however, the USA Rice Federation and the U.S. Rice Producers Association estimate that the U.S. lost approximately $1.9 billion in rice export sales to Iraq from 1991 to 2003. Having entered the market under the U.N. Oil for Food program, Thailand, Vietnam, and China presently constitute the chief exporters to Iraq, which annually requires 1.3 million metric tons of rice.

Until Congress passage of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, the Cuban market had also been closed to American agriculture products because of the lingering U.S. sanctions imposed in 1963. With the reopening mandated by this Act, rice sales to Cuba have grown to $64 million per year. On February 22nd though, the Treasury Departments Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) announced it was redefining the definition of payment of cash in advance a ruling which could jeopardize future trade. As Cubans begin looking to Vietnam, Thailand, and other sources for rice, Congressman Poe has already co-signed a measure H.R. 1339 urging Congress to clarify its original intent on cash payment in advance to promote the growth of this trade relationship.

Capturing the various hurdles faced by the farming industry through both facts and figures as well as personalized grower accounts, Congressman Poes address included the following excerpts:

Madam Speaker, on Friday night, April 15, I had a meeting with local rice farmers in my southeast Texas district. We met out in the country in the lowland plains of east Texas on Aggie Drive in Beaumont, Texas... Many of these men had finished a 16-hour day and came to the meeting after working all that time in the fields. They drove up in their standard work vehicles: Texas pickup trucks. Their appearances would fool you, however. They are highly intelligent, some very well educated. They know more about farming, farming machinery, nature, conservation, irrigation, water resources, meteorology, pesticides, insecticides, fertilizer, trade, global competition, foreign governments, and efficiency than many who have a string of degrees behind their names, especially those near this House.

As we sat around and ate fried catfish made out of rice flour, I talked to them for several hours about their plight. One rice farmer said this was his last year in farming. He was finally just going to sell off his equipment and sell the land. They painted for me, Madam Speaker, the extremely bleak picture of the present and future in rice farming. And while one could argue that economic decline plagues all rural America across the board on account of the death tax and high tax levels, too many government regulations, the rice farming industry has been hit particularly hard

The State of Texas in 1972 had more than 600,000 acres of rice farming. That is about the size of Rhode Island. Last year, it was less than 200,000 acres, a two-thirds loss of the land to something else. Unfortunately, rice farmers, those in southeast Texas, for example, cannot change to alternative crops because other crops do not thrive in this environment, the marshy, unique wetlands and humid climate of Southeast Texas.

In addition, the farmers have to contend with the whims of the Lone Star weather, ranging from sun to hail, too much rain to not enough rain, or none at all. Natural disasters like hurricanes, they come and go and ravage the land where we live. According to the United States Department of Agriculture's Economic Research Service, in 2002, the average American rice farmer made about $1,700 from farming, or about 82 cents an hour for a 40-hour work week. I will repeat that. That is 82 cents an hour for a 40-hour work week, and that was with government support. This harsh reality forces most farmers to rely on nonfarming income to support their households.

Rice farmers work their own land, Madam Speaker. They do not hire day laborers or seasonal workers. They cannot afford it. The farmer and his kids, they work the land. Rice farmers can barely support themselves financially, let alone make needed contributions to the industry to keep it afloat

Moreover, industry representatives are dwindling. Farm machines, the John Deere stores, they are disappearing. Each year, older farmers quit or retire. Each year, less acreage is being used for crops. Each year, fewer young men go into farming because the cost versus the return on this investment is not sufficient for any type of lifestyle. What is the incentive for the young to enter the farming industry?

This meeting we had on April 15, most of the farmers there were at least 50 or older. Farming, rice farming is a very labor- and energy-intensive business. It requires electricity to run the pumps to irrigate the crops, diesel fuel to run the combines, and fuel for the crop dusters, pesticides to control insect problems. And we have a lot of insects in southeast Texas.

In addition to the labor from early morning to dark, from February to November, it is about 8:30 now, Madam Speaker, in southeast Texas, most of the rice farmers are coming in from working all day.

All the costs have increased, yet the price that the farmer receives for selling his crop remains the same or has dropped. It also takes an enormous amount of time to fill out Federal forms, which has tripled, according to the farmers.

These farmers are required just to sell the rice they grow. Due to government regulations, sanctions have prohibited farmers from making sales of their crops in an open market. They are even told by this government, our government, how much they can plant
Once the experienced rice farmers leave the industry, we cannot restore this lost knowledge. No government program can do that. Not to mention that the present farm program constitutes only four-tenths of 1 percent of the national budget

Madam Speaker, these figures and personal accounts [not included in this release] all point to the two main obstacles faced by rice farmers. The fact that the land that the farmers work in many times is not land that they own, but they are tenants on the land. Yet the owners of the land are the ones who receive the subsidies. Also, the United States Government has shut off several of the key markets to which our rice farmers used to sell.

The rice farmers that I have talked to, Madam Speaker, they do not want to be dependent on the government. Most believe they are forced to sell their land and become tenants to land owners because of the government. The land owners receive the subsidies. Maybe the farmers who work the land should receive the subsidies.

But with all this talk about free trade, the real issue is, Madam Speaker, is we prohibit free rice trade. It is unjust to further cut subsidies unless we expand the scope of the rice trade. During the 80s, Iraq was the number one rice market for American rice producers, producing 80 percent of Iraq's rice imports.

American rice sales to this country alone peaked at 500,000 metric tons. But from 1991 to 2003, because of Saddam Hussein and the Iraq sanctions, the U.S.A. Federation and the U.S. Rice Producers Association estimate that the United States lost $1.9 billion in rice export sales to Iraq.

As a result of loss of these sales to Iraq, other countries have stepped in to sell rice to Iraq. Two of them are Thailand and Vietnam. We have perfectly good rice in the United States, perfectly good rice in Texas and the five other States that grow rice. Not every State grows rice in the United States, Madam Speaker. The States that grow rice are Texas, California, Louisiana, Arkansas, Missouri, and Mississippi.

Here we are rebuilding Iraq with American money, and yet rice is bought from Vietnam to restore Iraq. I ask the question, why. Charity begins at home if we wish to have charity, and maybe we should think about some of the other foreign giveaway programs that this country is involved in before we cut subsidies to our rice farmers, remembering, of course, that they really do not want the subsidies as much as they want market for their rice.

In January I had the opportunity to go to Iraq. I met with James Smith. He was a counselor for the Office of Agricultural Affairs at the United States Embassy in Baghdad. That is a long title, but he is the person that is responsible for helping American farmers get rice to Iraq.

He is a good individual. He understands rice economics 101. I congratulate him on his efforts to make sure that we get rice, especially Texas rice and rice from the southeast United States to Iraq.

Upon returning to the United States, I was later invited by the gentleman from Texas (Mr. Bonilla), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies of the Committee on Appropriations to join him and other congressional leaders to discuss with the Iraqi Grain Board the further expansion of United States rice trade to Iraq.

We learned in that meeting that the Iraqis, through the Iraqi grain board, had purchased 60,000 metric tons of U.S. rice and another 360,000 metric tons will be purchased soon. The Iraqis wish to buy all the rice that they can. It is estimated that Iraq will need 1.3 million metric tons of rice every year. We want that rice to come from the United States, and we need to make sure that it is American rice that is on the Iraqi supper table and not rice from Vietnam.

And while, Madam Speaker, this is a great historic first step, we cannot stop there. We need to reopen trade, not only with Iraq but also with Cuba on the issue of agriculture products, specifically rice. These two countries along with Iran were countries that we used to send our rice to before trade embargoes and sanctions were set.

So these are some issues that are before the House and before our country. It is called food and food supply. I am working along with many others to facilitate rice trade with Cuba. I believe that our sanctions against Castro's regime, which have been in place since 1963, should not prevent our Nation from selling our farm products to the people there.

Madam Speaker, the Cuban people will eat rice just like the Iraqi people will; and if we do not sell it to them, they will get it somewhere else. Why are we economically hindering ourselves, our farmers, and our industries?

The Cuban market remained closed until this body passed the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000. With the reopening mandated by this law, rice sales to Cuba have grown to $64 million a year. But now we hear that some want to slash back this trade for political reasons.

On February 22 through the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control, it announced it was redefining what Congress had put into law, that being the definition of payment of cash in advance. To most folks, payment of cash in advance is not a complicated issue. It means what it means. This bureaucracy is getting in the way of congressional intent. So Cubans are beginning to look to other nations, not surprisingly, Vietnam and Thailand and other sources for their rice. So I encourage other Members of this House to co-sign on to H.R. 1339 to further explain in simple terms to government bureaucrats that farmers should be allowed to trade with Cuba on a cash for crop basis.

I continue to hear from rice farmers in my district that if U.S. political leaders would open world markets to American farmers, price supports would not be necessary. The modest price support provided by the U.S. Government and the greater efficiency of the U.S. agriculture production simply are not enough to provide a level international playing field and prevent erosion of U.S. agricultural infrastructure. We just want markets, Madam Speaker.

America's food supply is the safest, it is the best quality, it is the most abundant and the cheapest in the world. As the agricultural society of the United States declines, we will become more and more dependent on other countries for our food. This could lead to a national security problem.

It is one thing for this country to become more and more dependent on other countries for energy, but we should never get in the position, Madam Speaker, that this country becomes dependent on any country for our food. We cannot let that happen. It is a national security issue.

Maybe we should also consider using Texas rice as an alternative fuel like Nebraska is doing with corn and Hawaii is doing with sugar. In devising a long overdue energy plan, we should capitalize on rice's potential. We should be open-minded, be innovative, and not depend on foreign nations for not only our food but our energy as well. And this has great possibilities, Madam Speaker.

This week is Small Business Week. Farms, the American farmer, the American farm family are the best examples of small business in the United States. So tonight and tomorrow morning when we push ourselves away from our tables, we need to thank the American farmer. We need to thank the folks like Ray Stoesser and Jack Wendt. We need to thank their families for what they have done to America and for America. They are our natural resources, for there is nothing quite like the American farmer.

Madam Speaker, that is just the way it is.