By: Randy Krehbiel
October 28, 2013
Third District Congressman Frank Lucas says he never talked about the hailstorm while his father was alive.
Lucas was 7. When the storm passed, and Ike Lucas went out into the still dark night with a flashlight, Lucas followed.
"It was just an ocean of broken-over stalks," Lucas said during a telephone interview last week. "It just had the whatever pounded out of it."
That night, as much as anything, explains how 53-year-old Frank Lucas became chairman of the House Agriculture Committee and why he has become the unlikely focus of so much anger from so many political perspectives.
The Cheyenne Republican has been attacked for cutting too much from food stamps and other federal nutrition programs and for not cutting enough. He's been criticized for not taking a big enough axe to agriculture subsidies in their various forms, for whacking too much and for whacking in the wrong places.
Wednesday, Lucas will chair the first meeting of the conference committee made up of members of the House and Senate and charged with coming to an agreement on a new farm bill setting policy on a wide range of issues for the next five years.
It is a difficult task.
Somehow, the committee must reconcile a House bill that cuts $39 billion from food stamps over the next 10 years and a total of $60 billion from all farm programs with a Senate bill that cuts $4.5 billion from food stamps and $24.5 billion overall.
Lucas himself has proposed cutting about $20 billion from food stamps, mainly by eliminating what is called categorical qualification for the program. That's roughly 2 percent, and Lucas insists it can be made without keeping anyone who really needs assistance from getting it.
He also favors continuing the move away from direct cash payments to producers in favor of federally subsidized crop and livestock insurance. While the general public may grouse about any type of agriculture support, Lucas and most other agriculture economists say they are necessary to assure reasonably priced food supplies.
"When you understand what farmers and ranchers go through … you're just willing to work a little harder to give them the tools to keep on doing what they do, and that benefits all the rest of us in the country," Lucas said.
This farm bill is the culmination of Lucas' nearly 20 years in Congress, and in some ways his entire life's experience.
He graduated from Oklahoma State University in 1982 with a degree in agriculture economics, and returned home to the worst farming bust since the Great Depression. Farmers and ranchers were losing their land, and in some cases dying at their own hand.
"I understand what happens if we get policy wrong," Lucas said. "If we mess up federal policy, as was done in the '20s and '30s, you've got the Depression that the drought made that much more horrendous.
"In the 1980s we didn't have a drought, but when I came home from college to farm, we slid into what can fairly be described as an ag and energy depression, starting in the summer of '82, that went on for almost a decade.
"I can't make it rain, but I can try to make sure we don't make the policy mistakes of the '70s and '80s or the '20s and '30s. I can do my best to see the folks who come after me don't suffer like my parents and my grandparents and my neighbors did in the '80s. That's my goal."
A lifelong Republican who first ran for public office in 1984 and lost twice before being elected to the Oklahoma House of Representatives in 1988, Lucas has come under fire from conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation for his positions on farm policy.
His proposal for SNAP has been criticized by the left and right.
For Lucas, though, it all goes back to watching his father survey that shattered wheat field in the beam of a flashlight.
"Federal crop insurance was not the thing then that it is now," Lucas said. "Basically, you just took it on the chin. Watching my father – I'm 7 years old – we went at a brisk pace to the field. It was the slowest walk back to the house I can ever remember.
"I don't think my dad and I ever discussed that hailstorm. The next day he got the tractor out and started plowing, because there was nothing to harvest. He plowed it under. It just makes an impression on you when you've lived it for real."