Are the proposed cuts to federal farm program spending truly reforms? "The following information can help you put the suggested reductions we are hearing about in perspective," says Sarah Carlson, research and policy director for Practical Farmers of Iowa, based in Ames.
The Super Committee in Congress has to cut federal spending and come up with a plan to balance the federal budget. The committee has set a deadline of November 18 to come up with the plan. There are a number of suggestions and recommendations being sent to the "Super Committee," which is looking at all types of federal programs, not just ag programs.
The following information and observations come from the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition or NSAC, says Carlson. This report regarding proposed cuts in USDA farm program spending was written by the NSAC staff, headed by Ferd Hoefner, executive director of the coalition, based in Washington, D.C.
Take a close look at the proposed 10-year cut to federal farm programs
The U.S. Senate is expected to begin consideration of the ag appropriations bill within the next week, while the House and Senate authorizing committee late last week sent their letter to the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction in Congress, detailing proposed cuts to farm bill mandatory spending.
According to published reports, the size of the proposed 10-year cut to farm bill programs is in the neighborhood of $23 billion, or about half way in between the higher amount proposed by President Obama and the lower amount that would result from the "sequestration" process that will kick in if the deficit reduction measure to be voted on by Christmas fails to pass.
The Senate appropriations measure which will not be finished until next week, includes a nearly $200 million reduction below the already very low fiscal year 2011 funding level. On top of that overall cut to discretionary farm, food and rural spending, the bill also cuts 12% or nearly $700 million from mandatory farm bill conservation program spending. The companion House-passed measure cuts the farm bill programs by over $1 billion. Appropriators raid farm bill accounts through legislative riders and often rely on this mechanism whenever the allocation given to them to fund the programs under their jurisdiction is shorted.
Conservation community weighs In on proposed USDA program cuts
Last week, the National Sustainable Ag Coalition joined with 47 other organizations in writing to the Joint Select Committee and Agriculture Committees urging them to recognize the huge federal budget cuts already made to farm conservation programs and to leave them out of the mix in any further reductions in the deficit reduction package. Signers of that letter included the Agricultural Retailers Association, Ducks Unlimited, National Farmers Union, Environmental Defense Fund, National Association of Conservation Districts, and National Association of State Foresters.
Two other conservation letters also went up to Caitol Hill last week and NSAC was a signer to those as well. One signed by 45 organizations concerned about saving grasslands and protecting wildlife habitat urged the Agriculture Committees and the Joint Select Committee to re-establish conservation compliance requirements for all forms of farm production support including crop insurance and to maintain funding for working lands and easement programs that help protect grasslands. It was signed by National Wildlife Federation, National Audubon Society, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and others.
Another letter came from state water utility groups and also urged support for farm conservation program funding to help improve water quality, pointing to the role of conservation programs in saving state and local funding for far more expensive clean-up efforts that are necessary in the absence of farm pollution prevention measures. Signing that letter, in addition to NSAC, was the American Water Works Association, Metropolitan Water Agencies Assn., American Public Works Association and National Association of Clean Water Agencies.
NSAC has also been in communications with Congress stressing the need for any budget agreement on the farm bill to include renewed funding for the Wetlands Reserve Program and Grasslands Reserve Program, both of which have been mainstays in the farm conservation farm bill portfolio but both of which run out of money at the end of the current farm bill cycle. "We believe these programs should be given permanent farm bill funding on a par with most other mandatory farm bill programs instead of being made subject to funding renewal battles each farm bill cycle," says Hoefner. "We continue to push for restored, permanent funding as the priority use for any savings from the Conservation Reserve Program, a program whose funding is being reduced by market forces."
He adds: "Our full farm bill budget proposal includes our positions on rural development and food system funding and farm program reform."
How to tell if a proposal to Joint Committee is truly a reform proposal
"It is becoming clear the Agriculture Committee package to the Joint Committee will include either elimination or a big reduction in commodity program direct payments," says Hoefner. "We applaud this move, but do not believe that moving away from direct payments is by itself an adequate measure of reform. While there are many aspects to reforming farm programs, here are a few essential measures to look for when the letter to the Joint Committee is released:
1. Does the move to revenue-based support include real payment limits or does it continue the current system of unlimited taxpayer support on every last acre regardless of how large a farm grows? The payment limitation reform bill introduced by Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA) and Tim Johnson (D-SD) should be included as part of the new farm safety net to ensure that current loopholes allowing for unlimited payments are closed and that the resulting new product is indeed a safety net and not a subsidy to farm consolidation and diminished economic opportunity in agriculture and rural America.
2. Do all forms of production subsidies — commodity payments, shallow loss revenue insurance payments, and crop and revenue insurance premium subsidies — include conservation provisions requiring recipients of taxpayer support to comply with basic soil erosion and wetland protection measure? And are subsidies of all kinds ended for conversion of prime grasslands?
3. Does the new farm program landscape include maximum planting flexibility so that choices of what to grow are left to the farmer and the market place rather than dictated by federal policy? There is growing interest in the production of fresh, local and minimally processed produce and these markets need to be given a chance to thrive and improve local economies.
4. Does the resulting farm bill funding package strengthen and improve the working lands conservation program budget so critical environmental problems can be addressed and, over the long term, taxpayer support of agriculture will move toward providing public benefits and long-term food security?
5. Are the newer wave, small but innovative and job-creating farm bill programs for rural micro-enterprise, value-added enterprise development, beginning farmers, minority farmers, local food, organic farming, specialty crops, and direct marketing continued and expanded?