The Delta Grassroots Caucus (DGC) is a broad coalition of grassroots leaders in the eight-state Delta region. DGC is also a founding partner of the Economic Equality Caucus,
which advocates for economic equality across the USA.

Rice Industry Expansion in the Delta & Legacy of Constructive Policies Engineered by former US Rep. Bill Alexander

Posted on June 19, 2019 at 02:53 PM

The Delta Caucus urges the Trump administration and Congress to preserve the tremendously important trade ties the United States holds with Mexico and Canada, as well as opening up new markets in Cuba and China. In doing so we would like to recall the leadership in trade and economic policies of former Congressman Bill Alexander of Arkansas.

Below is a policy memorandum that was distributed by the Delta Grassroots Caucus at our regional economic development conference at Arkansas State University Mid-South in West Memphis, Arkansas on April 25-26, 2019. The memo summarizes the tremendous expansion of the Delta rice industry generated by bipartisan legislation sponsored by Congressman Alexander beginning in the 1970s. This economic success story continues to be a major economic plus for our region today.

We had a total of 140 participants for all or parts of the conference from the 8-state Greater Delta Region from southern Illinois and Missouri down through western Kentucky and Tennessee, Arkansas, Mississippi to New Orleans, Louisiana and eastward to the Alabama Black Belt, as well as representatives from as far away as Washington, DC, Georgia, Florida and Texas.

The memo describes the huge expansion of the rice industry in Arkansas and the Delta region generated by innovative legislation sponsored by Congressman Alexander of Arkansas (with bipartisan support in Congress) beginning in the 1970s, leading Arkansas to become by far the leading rice producing state in America and the Delta the largest rice-producing region in our country.

The memo proceeds to advocate for wise farm trade policies supported by Rep. Alexander during his tenure in Congress and now being advocated by many leaders from both parties today in favor of maintaining and expanding our export markets to Mexico and Canada, as well as opening up trade to Cuba and the massive market of China. (Editor’s note–Lee Powell, Executive Director, Delta Grassroots Caucus)

An Economic Success Story Led by Congressman Bill Alexander: Arkansas and the Delta Rank as the Top Rice Producing-Region in America

April 25-26, 2019 Delta Regional Conference at ASU Mid-South in West Memphis, Arkansas

Arkansas is by far the leading rice-producing state in America, growing approximately half of the rice in the USA, with Louisiana, Mississippi, and Missouri ranking in the top six rice producers along with California and Texas. This is a major economic success story for the Greater Delta Region

Arkansas’ rice boom began in the 1970s, when federal legislation in 1970 and again in 1976 sponsored by then US Rep. Bill Alexander of Arkansas’ First District lifted controls on rice production in the earlier allotment program, opening up rice farming to many new producers. While we all know about economic challenges in our region, we have also had successes and the Delta rice boom in recent history is a major accomplishment.

Rep. Alexander worked with a bipartisan group in Congress to pass the legislation expanding opportunities for more rice farmers. From about 500,000 acres in 1970, Arkansas became the country’s leading producer in 1973 and the rice expansion kept gathering momentum for the long term:

–Arkansas rice acreage tripled from 1970 to 1981 from 500,000 to 1.54 million harvested acres.

–Arkansas set a record of 1.785 million acres in 2010, and for the past half century it has led the nation and continues to do so every year with about 1.161 million acres planted in 2017.

–Today, the rice industry contributes more than $6 billion annually to the state’s economy and accounts for about 25,000 jobs, primarily in the east Arkansas Delta region.

–Arkansas has 2,500 rice farms and 96% of them are family-owned. The state’s farmers produce 9 billion pounds of rice, which is the state’s second highest value commodity and its top agricultural export.

In 1979 when the Delta rice boom was in full swing, a USDA report explained that planting was restrained by government programs from 1955 to 1973 to prevent huge surpluses. In the 1970s, Rep. Alexander worked with Members of Congress from both parties in passing legislation suspending marketing quotas “resulting in a sharp rise in national acreage,” according to USDA.

Acreage more than doubled in northeast Arkansas from 1973 to 1978 and a similar major expansion also took place across much of the rest of the Mississippi Delta” including Mississippi, Louisiana and southeast Missouri.

Earlier government policies restricted production to farmers who had allotments and placed controls on who could plant it and how much. Alexander’s legislation opened up rice production to many new growers and the Delta economy has benefited ever since. We need to follow up on those lasting gains by pursuing constructive policies now especially in safeguarding and expanding rice exports.

Opening up trade to Cuba: Cuba is an agricultural market estimated at about $2 billion for all products. They consume large amounts of rice, and Delta farmers are uniquely positioned by quality, high production, and lower transportation costs to defeat any other nation for this market. The embargo has existed 50 years without undermining the Cuban dictatorship and has only harmed our producers. The best way to undermine the authoritarian regime is to show them the benefits of free enterprise and our great products like rice and poultry.

Harvey Joe Sanner, long-time farm activist in east Arkansas, participant in the Tractorcade of the 1970s, and president of the American Agriculture Movement of Arkansas praised Congressman Alexander’s tremendous accomplishments in expanding the Delta rice industry, as well as his foresight in leading the charge in favor of expanded markets to Mexico, Cuba, and the rest of the world.

Looking back on Alexander’s statesmanlike accomplishments in a comment on June 20, 2019, Sanner said: “Bill Alexander had foresight and the political ability to accomplish legislative action that benefitted his part of the world. Both vision and ability are necessary and one without the other is little more than political rhetoric. Representative Alexander wasn’t about rhetoric, he was about action and he had the political courage to speak up for his district even when it meant standing up to the rich and powerful opposition.”

Need to avoid trade wars, expand into the China market, and protect our exports to to Mexico and Canada: Many economists have warned of the potential damaging impact if countries retaliate against the US for trade barriers imposed by the Trump administration—estimated losses would include a reduction in US rice production by more than $151 million due to a combination of lower producer prices and output. We urge the administration and Congress to avoid escalating tariff wars, maintain our trade with Mexico and Canada, and open up markets in China and elsewhere.