House cuts will hurt farmers
By Judith Redmond, courtesy of Capay Valley Farm Shop
On June 17th, the House of Representatives passed its proposal for fiscal year 2012 agriculture spending. In the agricultural ‘discretionary’ budget, the House voted to cut nearly $3 billion from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the FDA. Combined with cuts already made earlier this year, that adds up to a 25 percent reduction. The House Bill is a proposal — the Senate hasn’t weighed in yet and when it does, the two versions have to be reconciled. The final step will be the President who also has to sign off.
On top of the 25% cut, the House took aim at funding for conservation programs on farms, with a cut of one billion dollars. This cut to resource conservation efforts, like the overall cuts, was on top of an already enacted cut of $500 million. Due to the size and timing of the proposed cuts, USDA would be forced to break or modify existing government conservation contracts with farmers if the proposal was enacted, which seems a particularly poor example of law-making.
Conservation efforts weren’t the only casualty. Aid to poor women and children was also out on the chopping block. The Center on Budget and Policy Priorities estimates that the proposal, if enacted, could remove between 200,000 and 350,000 women and children from aid programs next year. These proposed cuts to our safety net for the poor added up to a 13% reduction — one of the most significant cuts in decades.
Singled out for special ire were USDA efforts to increase farm income and rural jobs by supporting the growth of regional food markets. The house voted to strip all funding for the USDA’s Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food program — an initiative that doesn’t even have its own budget. In another amendment, the House voted to prohibit any use of funds to plan for climate changes — the USDA was blocked even from conducting a basic assessment. (Against a backdrop of tornados in Missouri and Alabama, floods in Tennessee and Vermont, drought in Texas and hurricanes once again predicted ‘above normal.’) Finally, the House made sure that there wouldn’t be any sneak attacks by school kids and directed the USDA to ensure that there would be no increased costs for improved school food standards.
While weighing these important matters, our elected Representatives overturned all proposals to limit direct payments to farmers — the commodity programs that primarily support growers of corn, soybeans, rice, cotton, and wheat. For example the House voted down an amendment that would have limited farm commodity payments to individuals and entities with annual adjusted gross income of less than $250,000 (or $500,000 for most married couples and even higher for individuals with multiple business entities.) The House couldn’t even muster the sense of fairness to put an absolute limit on commodity payments, for example by requiring that they be no more than $125,000 per farm.
Commodity payments and other direct payments to farmers by the USDA, have played a huge role in U.S. agricultural policy. The USDA Economic Research Service has reported that those payments have been part of the reason for a shift to larger and more consolidated enterprises among growers of agricultural commodities. On the other hand, for the average farm household, and for smaller and mid-scale farms, income from government payments can be an important part of keeping the farm afloat. Note that while commodities are grown on a huge number of farms across the country and in almost every agricultural region, specialty crop growers like those in the Capay Valley do not receive these payments.
Taken together, the disproportionate share of the cuts made in the House proposal would fall on poor people, rural communities and the environment, while leaving direct payments to farm entities of all sizes untouched. Note that the bulk of these commodity payments (3/4) go to ten percent of the largest farms, so a cap on the payments would have affected some powerful and wealthy individuals, in fact more than a dozen of the members of the House themselves are happily receiving the very payments that they refused to cap. This is not a case when all parts of the agricultural sector would share the pain, no — the House is hoping to protect farmers and businesses with means. The chance of being a millionaire in the U.S. is 1 in 22, but the chance of being a millionaire if you are in the U.S. Congress is 1 in 2. This is no way to make policy. We think that the House proposal is an appalling example of short-sighted government at its very worst.
P.S. Surely our Senators can come up with a better proposal! It’s easy to call and tell them what you think. Go to Congress.org and type in your zip code. Type in the name of your congress member and then choose the contact tab. You can also call the Capitol Switchboard and ask to be directly connected: 202-224-3121.
Judith Redmond is a farmer at Full Belly Farm in the Capay Valley in northern California.