Brantley's family has been farming in Arkansas for 100 years, starting out as sharecroppers on a small plot. Today they own a 9,000-acre farm in Stuttgart. Rice is Brantley's highest-grossing crop, and a third of the farm's acreage is dedicated to paddy that he harvests and delivers to Riceland Foods, Stuttgart's largest mill.
Brantley's farm is a marvel of modern farming technology. Thirteen satellite-guided tractors level his fields to pancake flatness, extensive irrigation pipes stream water from aquifers deep in the ground, and crop-dusting planes drop fertilizer and pesticides throughout the growing season. It takes just three employees to monitor 3,000 acres of rice once the crop is planted.
Thanks to modern farms such as Brantley's, and the efficiency and scale of rice production in Arkansas, the United States has been a major player in the global rice trade since the 1970s. The country may only produce around 2 percent of global output, but it is consistently among the top five exporters in the world. Arkansas rice is eaten around the world -- from Japan to Mexico to Turkey -- and roughly half of the rice grown in the state is sold in foreign markets. "People don't realize how much that plays into what we do here, this itty-bitty community in Arkansas," Brantley explained.
One early morning in June, I drove with Brantley around his farm as he checked the water levels in the verdant rice fields. He pointed out the irrigation pumps his dad invested in years ago and talked about his deep love for agriculture. But his mind was in Washington, D.C., where the Senate was debating the farm bill. The legislation was being touted by many politicians on both sides of the aisle as a fiscally responsible measure that would yield $23 billion in savings for American taxpayers, but those savings were created in part by cutting a subsidy program known as "direct payments" -- one that rice farmers in Arkansas have heavily relied on for years.
According to the Environmental Working Group, Arkansas farmers received more than $2 billion in direct payments from the federal government between 1995 and 2011, half of which was for rice production. Riceland Foods and Producers Rice Mill, the first- and second-largest recipients of federal subsidies in the state, received over $868 million in subsidies during the same period. The new proposal in the Senate's farm bill was a crop insurance program designed to protect farmers in the event of shortfalls in yield. But rice is an irrigated crop and not dependent on rain, meaning yields are consistent; rice farmers would stop getting direct payments and the crop insurance program would likely never pay out for them.
Just hours after Brantley toured his farm with me, the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 64 to 35. The House of Representatives' version, which includes a "price loss coverage" system to support growers in the event of falling rice prices, never made it to a vote.
"If you take away these direct payments and the domestic market does not make up the difference, odds are farmers are going to grow more soybeans and corn," explained Keith Glover, the president and CEO of Producers Rice Mill. "What remaining rice is grown will obviously be at a higher price, and we're going to be less competitive in the world market. Over the long haul, if we're less competitive that means less exports."