February 28, 1996
BETTY ANN BOWSER: It seems like morning starts slower and slower for L.P. Simmons. His body has 72 years, the pick-up, 160,000 miles. He's been farming in the Rio Grande Valley of South Texas since 1950, when he planted his first crop on a mere 24 acres of rented land. Simmons has pretty much seen it all, good crops, bad crops, hurricanes, tornadoes, and one of the things he says he's learned is you can't do much about all that.
L.P. SIMMONS, Farmer: I've learned you can be a good farmer and have bad luck and go broke but you've got to have some luck in farming, because too much depends on forces that you have no control over.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Like most Valley farmers, Simmons grows a mix of crops because the land does not support just one commodity. The hot climate, dry soil, and unpredictable weather suit a combination of sugar cane, cotton, and grains. Throughout the years as prices for those crops have gone up and down, Simmons has had some protection in the form of government farm programs. The government stepped into agriculture policy back in the 1930s when the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression caused thousands of farmers to grow broke. The government bailed out farmers and stabilized prices. Here's how the federal farm program works. A farmer plants certain crops for which the government sets a target price. If the farmer can't get that price when it's time to harvest, the government makes up the difference. In return, the farmer has to follow government rules on how much land to plant, and sometimes even which crops to grow. And while Washington has been cutting back on farm subsidies for years, this time around, the Congress is talking about phasing out federal price supports altogether and replacing them with fixed payments declining over a seven year period. Each morning before daybreak, Simmons meets with his two sons and son-in-law for coffee to discuss what needs to be done on their family farm. Simmons thinks it would be great if the federal government would get out of his life but at the same time he sees the need for federal programs.
L. P. SIMMONS: Well, I guess we need to keep the price stabilized, and it also keeps production down. I thought maybe one of the days there were going to be such a few amount of farmers they would get together and regulate theirselves, but you can't do it if, if it looks like something is going to be good, price is going to be good, it's just we're greedy enough that we want all that we can get.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How much help do you need from the government along with luck?
L. P. SIMMONS: Sometimes I think the government's more of a deterrent than it is a help. But--
BETTY ANN BOWSER: How so? How so?
L. P. SIMMONS: We have to go to school to get license to do things that we've been doing for 50 years.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Like what?
L. P. SIMMONS: Well, to apply insecticide. They have a film that we have to go to, we have to get so many hours of school each year, and in this film it shows you have to wash your hands and things that you learned as a child. To me, it's an insult. I've been doing this for 50 years and never had anybody poisoned. I think you're a farmer because you want to be independent, and that kind of aggravates you because you're not independent too. You are dependent on someone else.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mike England has a much smaller operation than Simmons, but he's equally divided on having the government involved in his farm.
MIKE ENGLAND: (talking to little boy brushing horse) He likes that, doesn't he?
MIKE ENGLAND, Farmer: I hate to see the government involved in my business every day. Sometimes we feel like a puppet on a string being danced around, telling us what we can plant, where we can plant it, and how many acres and what day it's got to be destroyed and planted by. The paper work is mounting. It almost takes a full-time secretary in order to keep up with it all.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Tudor Uhlhorn has a full-time secretary at his office downtown. With an MBA from Southern Methodist University, he is very much a farmer for the '90s. From this command post, Uhlhorn mans three cellular phones, a two-way radio system to communicate with field crews, and a desk full of computers with up-to-the-minute weather information.
TUDOR UHLHORN, Farmer: There's no mom and pop farming sitting in a farm house on the hilltop farming 250 acres anymore, living the rural way of life that most Americans look to preserve as sort of a home base for the United States, sort of our roots.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: One of the crops Uhlhorn grows is sugar cane. Congress has traditionally protected it by putting quotas on imports, a policy critics say keeps sugar prices for consumers artificially high. But farmers like Uhlhorn argue if the government pulls out of the sugar industry, it will put American growers out of business.
TUDOR UHLHORN: I can do everything exactly right and in 15 minutes in a hail storm I'm gone, everything that we've produced in that year can be destroyed. I try to give the example if somebody's producing semiconductors all year long and they don't get to sell 'em but during two weeks of the year and they have to storm 'em in a warehouse with no roof, if it rains during the time they're shipping their semiconductors out that they built all year, they lose all of their semiconductor crop. And when you put it in a perspective like that, most businesses don't have to deal with that kind of risk and most businesses don't have to deal with foreign competition, foreign subsidy like we do.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Uhlhorn doesn't want to lose his government subsidies. He's also convinced he will never lose the government regulations either.
TUDOR UHLHORN: That's a fantasy that I'm going to have no intervention from the government. They're always going to be involved in what we do from a water quality and environmental standpoint. They've gotten so far in there now that to think that they're going to give that up is unrealistic.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Farmers like Mike England have already started their planting in the Rio Grande Valley. Usually by now, Congress has signed off on its farm programs that tell farmers what to plant, how much, and what the target price will be. But this year, the farm program has been tied up in Congress.
MIKE ENGLAND: Here we are into our crop year already, already planting here, and they still don't have a farm program for us.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Does that make you uneasy? Does it give you a real nasty sense of uncertainty?
MIKE ENGLAND: Not so much uncertainty as made. Everything I've got to do I've got to plan ahead for. Most of those people that are working on that farm program don't have anybody to answer to. They can work on it. Right now it'll be into March before--the closest time will be in March sometime that we even have a chance to get a farm program. Well, my crops are already planted by that time.
SPOKESMAN: Listen up, Mr. and Mrs. American farmer--
BETTY ANN BOWSER: This afternoon, the House of Representatives began debating that same farm bill England is complaining about. A Senate version passed earlier this month. President Clinton has not said whether he will veto the legislation again, as he did in December.