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2001 Brought Significant Changes to American Farmers and Ranchers - 2001-12-29

For America's farmers and ranchers, the year 2001 will be remembered as a year of significant change that, like for so many people, was punctuated by tragedy and terror.

2001 began on a high note. Newly elected President George W. Bush tapped Ann Veneman, the head of California's state farming agency, to be the nation's first female Secretary of Agriculture.

But as Ms. Veneman took office, an energy crisis was sending fuel and fertilizer prices skyward. And a far more serious challenge arose in February, with an outbreak of foot and mouth disease among British cattle. As London struggled to contain the epidemic with massive cattle slaughters, the U.S. government blocked imports of all British livestock products. And it tightened health inspections in the U.S. livestock industry to ensure that foot and mouth disease last seen here 72 years ago did not infect U.S. cattle. The lessons learned from the threat posed by Britain's foot and mouth disease epidemic proved useful after the events of September 11. The terrorist assaults on New York's World Trade Towers and the Pentagon raised fears that America's farms and ranches might also be attacked, with biological weapons livestock or crop diseases. Again, the U.S. government worked closely with industry groups to tighten security at farms and food factories and to bolster research on new vaccines and other countermeasures to bioterrorism.

Bobby Acord, the head of the Agriculture Department's animal inspection service, says that since 9-11, America's farmers have been forced to become more vigilant: "You need to understand that life is not the same as it was, and now they are in a position of having to make sure they know who is on their farm or ranch and why they are there, because agriculture is at a unique risk point," he says.

The 9-11 attacks also accelerated a downturn in the American and global economies, with ripple effects on agriculture in the form of sluggish farm export trade and continued low commodity prices.

But beyond the pall of terrorism, there were positive developments in agriculture. Bumper crops and federal subsidies helped push U.S. farm income to a record high in 2001. And with the admission of China to the World Trade Organization, American farmers geared up for greatly expanded food exports to the world's most populous nation.

Also, for much of 2001, it appeared that the U.S. Congress was going to pass a new 10-year, $73 billion Farm Bill. Its backers hoped the legislation would provide farmers with a more reliable financial safety net. But in late December, partisan haggling over some provisions of the farm bill stalled its passage in the U.S. Senate, delaying any action until sometime in 2002.

Mary Kay Thatcher, a government affairs analyst with the private American Farm Bureau, says that the growing federal budget deficit could jeopardize funding for the new Farm Bill. And without it, Ms. Thatcher believes, American farmers could find two thousand two a difficult year: "Everybody has to tighten their belts," she says. "But you know this is the fifth year in a row that we've had poor prices for virtually every agricultural commodity. That's just unheard of. It's also the fifth year in a row that we haven't had any real weather disasters anywhere in the world, so we've got a huge surplus of commodities. And we're going to have to help farmers, or we're going to see a lot of them go under."

The American Farm Bureau's Mary Kay Thatcher says many U.S. farmers will probably feel the first impact of the Farm Bill delay when bankers refuse to lend them money for their planting operations this coming spring.

Part of VOA's Year End Series for 2001