Weekly Columns

This is a busy time of year for Arkansas rice farmers like Jennifer James, a fourth-generation rice farmer from Newport. Across the Rice Belt, farmers are driving combines through their fields harvesting this year’s crop, and trucks are hauling the crop to the mill. This is a fitting time to celebrate the rice industry as we recognize September as National Rice Month. As the nation’s leading rice producing state, Arkansas rice farmers have a unique perspective on the rules, regulations and trade deals involving this commodity.

At a recent hearing held by the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry, James shared her experiences as a rice farmer to guide my colleagues and me as we prepare to write the next Farm Bill. She testified about the economic impact of the industry and the merits of increasing markets for rice. 

Last year’s rice crop directly generated $5.6 billion. On top of this, $34 billion in total value added to the U.S. economy was generated from rice production, milling and selected end users. The industry provides jobs to more than 128,000 people across the country including 25,000 in Arkansas alone.

Nearly half of the rice produced in the U.S. is exported to more than 120 countries including the top markets of Mexico, Haiti, Japan, Central America and the Middle East. We are hopeful that soon our rice producers will finally have access to one of the world’s largest markets, China.

This summer, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) completed negotiations with Chinese officials on a protocol permitting the import of U.S. milled rice into China for the first time in history. This is great news for Arkansas rice producers and our state’s economy. As the world’s largest consumer of rice, the Chinese market holds great potential for our rice farmers. James told the Senate committee that she looks “forward to hopefully exporting rice to China.”

It’s expected that Chinese inspectors will come to the U.S. within the next few weeks to examine the rice mills to ensure they meet the country’s sanitation requirements. Considering that American rice farmers grow a high quality, safe product, these visits should result in good news.

There are other markets where challenges remain. In her testimony, James offered the example of access to the Cuban market. One barrier facing Arkansas famers when trying to export to Cuba is that lenders are prohibited from providing lines of credit to export goods to the country. I’m working to eliminate this hurdle. 

Together with Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), I introduced legislation to increase the export of American agricultural commodities to Cuba. The Agriculture Export Expansion Act would lift the ban on private banks and companies offering credit for agricultural exports to Cuba. This is commonsense reform that ensures Arkansas farmers and agriculture producers across the country can compete fairly for the Cuban marketplace.

Rice is a staple of the Cuban diet, so for rice farmers like James, this increase in demand would be good for business.

Given the significant downturn the farm economy is grappling with, the next Farm Bill will be very important for producers and rural communities that rely on agriculture. As Congress writes this legislation and considers changes to agriculture policies, I am committed to being a strong voice for Arkansas rice farmers and all of our state’s producers.