For Some Americans, Politics Is More Than a Presidential Debate

by Stuart Rothenberg June 4, 2007 · 12:30 PM EDT

GREENVILLE, Miss. — Two things stand out as one drives south on Highway 61. First, the road is flat. Very flat. Don’t even bother looking for a mountain or a hill. Second is the corn. Acres and acres of corn, which gets taller and taller, fuller and fuller as the miles roll by. Though it’s only May, the corn tassels already are poking up from the ears.

No, Auntie Em, with all due respect to L. Frank Baum and Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II, this isn’t Kansas or Oklahoma. It’s Mississippi, where King Cotton is being challenged by King Corn.

Most national political reporters regard politics primarily as an ideological and partisan struggle for power, but in the Delta it’s mostly about paying the bills and protecting a way of life.

Sure, the Iraq War is on everyone’s mind, but folks in the Mississippi Delta also are paying a great deal of attention to the farm bill and to the ethanol-fueled rising demand for corn.

All of the emphasis in Washington, D.C., on “alternative fuels” and ethanol has driven up the price of corn nationally, convincing some farmers in this rich agricultural region to replace cotton, the long-established local crop, with a variety of corn that can withstand the region’s weather.

In Mississippi, 40 percent of cotton acreage has switched to other crops, most notably corn.

The new crop could mean a quick windfall for those farmers who are growing it, but the change could have a disastrous impact on all those in the region whose livelihood depends on cotton, from those who produce fertilizer and insecticides to those involved with cotton gins and cottonseed oils. Growing cotton requires more labor than growing corn (and is about as twice as expensive), so curtailing cotton production affects entire communities.

While corn is the hot commodity here now, nobody is entirely sure if the region has the facilities to store it or move it. But that doesn’t seem to matter right now to farmers, since agriculture suddenly has become another element of the nation’s energy problem.

“It could be a real mess,” one Delta agriculture insider told me recently about how the region will deal with the logistics of storing and moving the corn crop to market.

For national political reporters, the top political story of the day is the 2008 presidential race, even though most of what happens over the next three or four months won’t determine the party nominees next year. But for Mississippi Delta farmers in Leland and Greenville and Belzoni and Indianola, the 2007 farm bill is an overriding issue of political and personal importance.

It’s not of merely passing importance to the people of the Delta that the 2006 midterm elections, decided primarily on Iraq, President Bush and the GOP’s ethics problems, swept out Republicans and changed the chairmen of the House and Senate Agriculture committees.

Sure, Democrats and Republicans often have different views of the role of government and different priorities, but geographic and commodity differences usually are more important considerations than party and ideology as interests fight for dollars and government attention.

Instead of Virginian Bob Goodlatte (R) chairing the House Agriculture Committee and Georgian Saxby Chambliss (R) holding the gavel at the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, an Iowan (Tom Harkin) now chairs the Senate committee and a Minnesotan (Collin Peterson) is his counterpart in the House.

That change means two Southerners are out, while two Midwesterners have taken over key positions. That’s probably not the best of developments for cotton farmers, who may well have to rely increasingly on Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln, the only Southern Democrat on the Senate Agriculture panel, to protect their interests. (Lincoln certainly will receive support from three Southern Republicans on the committee, including the ranking member, Chambliss.)

“I can’t emphasize the importance of who is holding the gavel and who is holding the pencil. The chairman writes the bill and decides what’s in it and what isn’t,” said one influential insider who worries about the South’s influence in writing the farm bill.

Some Delta residents are wondering whether there will be a farm bill at all before the 2008 elections. Given the calls for new spending on conservation and research, and the lack of new money, it’s even possible that Congress simply could extend the current law, though that would create its share of problems as well.

The Iraq War isn’t popular down here, but patriotism runs deep, as does support for America’s fighting men and women. Informed citizens have followed the controversies that have dogged Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and they are keeping half an eye on November’s gubernatorial race, which everyone seems to think is in the bag for incumbent Gov. Haley Barbour (R).

But for the region’s farmers, there is little doubt about what is most important in the next few months. That is understandable, since federal farm policy will determine how this rural, small-town region will fare over the next few years, and possibly beyond.