With most crops in and spring planting a distant responsibility, Arkansas farmers gathered in annual conventions last week.
Front and center was Gov. Mike Huckabee, who threw delighted farm crowds some red meat.
Rush Limbaugh-style, Huckabee blamed "wacko environmentalists" and "fruits and nuts" for burdensome regulations on farming.
Before the mini-controversy was over last week, Huckabee made it plain he was serious and equally plain that, if there is a well-thought argument to support his attack, he isn't yet capable of delivering it. The activities of extreme animal rights' activists were his main defense. And some of his "facts" were simply wrong.
The outburst began before the Arkansas Agricultural Council in Memphis: Said Huckabee: "Wacko environmentalists, who get out of their concrete towers one weekend a month and go look at a tree, believe they know more about the care of the land than farmers."
He continued: "They want to tell us what deodorant we can use and what kind of gas to put in our car. They are shutting down agriculture in states like California and Florida."
Huckabee also quipped: "We're not overwhelmed with fruits and nuts," so, he said, Arkansas and the South are "poised to take up the slack" from other states curtailing agriculture.
Huckabee's comments surprised many. His combativeness was both unprovoked by any pending proposal and out of character for a politician whose moderate image has helped him to great popularity.
What's more, polls show Arkansans, and Americans, tend to be environment friendly, and not only because they want the food they eat to be safe. Even good ol' boy bass fishermen like to toss their plastic worms to live fish, not waters deadened by sewer effluent, paper mill waste and chemical runoff from farms. And it was duck hunters who helped lead the charge to save the wildlife-rich wetlands along the Cache River from farming pressure.
Just the same, Huckabee took pains to dispel any notion that he may have gotten carried away. Two days after the Memphis speech, in a speech to the Arkansas Farm Bureau, he defended his remarks and defined "wackos" as "someone who cares more for the life of a lobster than an unborn child." He was similarly unapologetic in a subsequent newspaper interview, where lobsters again figured.
Huckabee commented, "...when somebody starts crying because a restaurant has a tank with a lobster in it, a lobster that will be cooked and eaten, that's wacko." What lobsters and abortions have to do with farm regulations, he never explained.
Huckabee also complained about rules that protect the California habitat of an endangered rat. He said that uncontrolled undergrowth contributed to fires that devastated Oakland in 1991. Again, no agricultural connection was discernible in the specific point. But the governor offered that any regulation that can be used against homeowners can be used against farmers.
Pressed further for details by the Times, the governor's office produced a smattering of press clips, mostly irrelevant to the issue.
A little research shows that Huckabee was off base on his general premise, that leading farm states have been devastated by environmental wackos. California agriculture is enjoying record prosperity. Florida agricultural production has been static, but for a complex variety of reasons, including weather and residential development pressure, but also including the popular movement to save the Everglades.
Bruce McMath, head of the Arkansas chapter of the Sierra Club, may have put best the reason for the surprised reaction and lingering questions about the governor's outburst:
"It's not politic, it's not statesmanly. It's demagoguery. To the extent that we have environmental problems they can be worked out without polarizing people. And his reputation is as the healer who's going to get extremes together to solve problems. This was obviously calculated to drive wedges."
McMath said he and other environmentalists hope to schedule a meeting with the governor "to put issues before him, challenge him on some things and see how he does."
If there was a unifying theme in the discussion, it was the usual one, money, and, in Huckabee's case, a continuation of elected leaders' tendency to be deferential to the economic interests of powerful lobbies. None has been so plain-spoken as Huckabee, however, at least since Frank White.
McMath sees it this way: "Most people are reasonable. It's the bad actors in industry that are behind this anti-environmental stuff. There's no question that endangered species are a sore point. But when it comes to corporate agriculture, the environmental stuff is a pain and affects their bottom line. So they've worked hard at the PR game developing this wacko concept. There are extremists everywhere, of course. But they are using this as a way to undermine the credibility of the whole environmental movement."
McMath remains optimistic. "We hate to give up on the governor this early and we're not going to. But it sure was a cold wind if you're in the environmental community."
Huckabee's case--and the other side
Here's a point-by-point look at the governor's attack on environmentalism:
The impact on California and Florida agriculture
The governor said Arkansas stands to profit from environmentalists' adverse impact on California and Florida agriculture.
Actually, figures show the cash value of California agriculture production has been on a nearly unbroken rise reaching a record $22.1 billion last year, up by 24 percent over five years.
Arkansas production has continued to grow as well, by 23.8 percent from 1990 to 1994, to $5.2 billion.
Florida production has indeed been static, up by only about 4 percent, to $5.9 billion, over five years.
But Stephen Monroe of the Florida Department of Agriculture lists a variety of explanations. His first reason: Weather.
A hurricane destroyed the tropical fruit crops two years ago and a series of freezes also damaged the huge citrus industry. Overproduction in the cattle industry hurt Florida's big ranchers.
Then there's development pressure in the massive conversion of farmland to more profitable real estate developments. That's an issue that has a flip side.
Because of voter resistance to unchecked growth, some local governments have even put limits on development. This makes it harder for some farmers to sell their land for residential development. This has no direct impact on agricultural production, but Monroe says it can make it more difficult for a farmer to obtain crop loans.
Monroe agrees that environmental concerns have had an impact on Florida, primarily the growing interest, both in Florida and nationally, in protecting the Everglades, a huge wetland that is dying from farming and development practices.
Among the items faxed to the Times by the governor's office as support for his position was a two-paragraph passage from an unidentified publication. It said, in part, "The Governor's Council on California Competitiveness found that 72 different agencies--local, state and federal--have environmental authority in Los Angeles County alone, with a typical business requiring a dozen or so permits. A new business might have successfully filed 12 permits, and then have their opening delayed due to problems with required permit number 13."
"That's a common complaint from businesses," says Gerald Meral of the California Conservation and Planning League (a pro-environment organization). "But it's mostly non-environmental--planning, zoning, public works."
Also, says Meral, "The bottom line is, the Chamber of Commerce is always talking about too much regulation and the Department of Commerce will tell you the economy here is doing very well."
You couldn't get more agreement from Kristine Berman, assistant director of the California State and Consumer Services Agency (whose ultimate boss is Republican Gov. Pete Wilson.) She works in the state's multi-agency competitiveness program.
"That report (the one cited by Huckabee in the unidentified clip) was in 1991, not 1996," she said. "We've put through quite a few reforms since then." She agreed California still "tends to have higher environmental standards than the rest of the country." But it still leads the country, on the curve even, in agriculture.
Said Berman: "There's a fine balance you have to reach and I think California tries its best to do so."
Another Huckabee example was a Los Angeles Times article about a California peach farmer, unhappy about a government tax that goes to a fund to promote California-grown tree fruit.
This example is particularly unsuited to Huckabee's argument, because such wackiness abounds in Arkansas.
Arkansas farmers and ranchers also pay taxes to fund research and promotion of crops ranging from rice, wheat and soybeans to beef, pork, dairy products and cotton.
As in California, the Arkansas taxes were approved by the legislature only after votes of the affected farmers. For some crops, such as wheat, farmers may choose to have the tax refunded. But not, say, on rice, taxed at 2.5 cents a bushel, or soybeans, taxed at .5 percent of net market value. Some of these so-called checkoffs date back to 1971.
In any case, the California peach dispute has nothing to do with the environment, says Meral of the Conservation and Planning League. "It's a peach grower suing other peach growers," he said. "If you asked environmentalists about it, they'd probably agree with the lawsuit."
Huckabee was on point on another example, though it's a problem not limited to California and Florida. He provided Los Angeles Times articles detailing the woes of farmers who wanted to farm protected habitat for endangered animals, including kangaroo rats, the blunt-nosed leopard lizard and San Joaquin kit foxes.
Difficulties of endangered species resonate in Arkansas, from the Farm Bureau to the forest products companies. It is another difficult balancing act between economic and environmental concerns. Environmental concerns are often misrepresented, however, with a gloss over a seemingly insignificant animal's important place in biological balance. Finally, the federal government creates many, if not most, of the burdensome endangered species rules. And Arkansas, like California, does supplement the federal government in some areas.
The Florida sugar tax
Huckabee's office also offered in his defense an article from a think tank opposing a recent tax on sugar in Florida. The penny-a-pound tax was a November ballot initiative meant to offset damage done to the Florida Everglades by sugar growers. The think tank's point was that sugar growers shouldn't be singled out--other agriculture and residential developers also have contributed to Everglades damage.
The Florida sugar situation isn't the most politic example for Huckabee. Sugar growers in Florida have been helped to immense wealth by federal tax subsidies pushed by Bob Dole, who, in return, received handsome campaign contributions. Huckabee, remember, worked in Dole's campaign. But never mind politics or even whether damage to the environment justifies a small tax on an undeniably environment-damaging industry that depends on taxpayers for its profits: The sugar tax failed.
It's worth noting that the sugar tax had strong popular support, despite millions of expenditures by the sugar industry. And Monroe of the Florida Agriculture Department points out another critical factor in the defeat of the tax:
A year ago, the Florida legislature, with the sugar industry's support, voted a $25-per-acre annual tax to mitigate Everglades damage. In other words, farmers themselves favored environmental regulations. The sugar tax failed, Monroe said, because "It was premature to add another tax when the first one hasn't had a chance to work."
And there's this, a Miami Herald reporter says: At the same time, Florida voters approved other ballot measures to require assessments on polluters, potentially including the sugar industry.
What's it mean?
The lingering questions: Why the governor's colorful, if not to say emotionally charged, comments? And what do they say about the governor's position on the environment in general and, specifically, the coming legislative session?
Rex Nelson, the governor's chief spokesman, said the "wacko" remark was not meant in a "mean way, but more in a humorous way. I think that the context may have been lost. It was just one or two lines in a speech."
Yes, but why did the governor take pains to reiterate his sincerity, with barely a hint of apology, other than to describe the "wacko" remark as a "throwaway line."
Says Nelson, "He certainly thinks there are excessive government regulations. What he was saying was that Arkansas has not been as prone to real excesses."
And the coming legislative session? "I'm not aware of anything on his agenda directly in the environmental area," says Nelson.
Print headline: "Huckabee attacks 'wacko' environmentalists" December 13, 1996.