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Debate intensifies over federal budget cuts to agriculture

Senator Chuck Grassley
(R-IA), a veteran member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, told
Agriculture.com Tuesday how he expects proposed cuts to USDA spending to break
down when his committee and the House Agriculture Committee release details to
Congress’s deficit-trimming Super Committee on November 1.

Yesterday both committees
announced that they’re proposing that the Super Committee cut farm bill
spending by $23 billion over 10 years.

Grassley said that the ag
committees are looking at cutting commodity programs by $15 billion, food
stamps by $4 billion and conservation programs by $4 billion.

“This is all very fluid,” he
cautioned, however.  Not only could the mix shift some, but the ag
committees are looking for a larger amount of cuts, in the range of $25 billion
to $25.5 billion, so that the extra funds could be used to extend new programs in
the 2008 Farm Bill that have no funding after 2012. Those new programs
amount to about $9 billion in spending and they include the 2008 Farm Bill's
new energy title used to support experimental biofuels, a program Grassley said
interests him.

Like other members of the ag
committees, Grassley hopes the Super Committee (officially called the Joint
Select Committee on Deficit Reduction) will leave the details of writing a farm
bill to them.

“It’s important that
agriculture make solid recommendations to make sure that those who know farm
policy have a seat at the table,” he told reporters Tuesday.

Grassley and Senator Tim
Johnson (D-SD) have also written the 12-member Super Committee to place a hard
cap on farm program payments in the next farm bill, which they say would save
another $1.5 billion. 

Grassley and Johnson
introduced legislation to do that on June 9, 2011.  Their bill would set a
limit of $250,000 for married couples for farm payments in an attempt to better
target farm program payments to family farmers.  Specifically, the bill
caps direct payments at $40,000; counter-cyclical payments at $60,000; and
marketing loan gains (including forfeitures), loan deficiency payments, and
commodity certificates at $150,000.  The bill also improves the standard
which the Department of Agriculture uses to determine farmers who are actively
engaged in their operations.

A signed copy of the letter
can be found on Grassley's
website
.

Grassley said again on
Tuesday the he believes the farm bill will ultimately use some kind of revenue
program as its key commodity title.  

The other part of the farm
bill that is currently the most expensive, crop insurance support at $8 billion
to $9 billion a year, would not be cut under Grassley’s scenario. Other
estimates circulating in Washington have crop insurance not taking any cuts but
see nutrition programs taking $5 billion in cuts and conservation $5 billion to
$6 billion, plus another $1 billion cut from everything else.

Ferd Hoefner, a lobbyist for
the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition (NSAC) who is working with other
conservation groups, told Agriculture.com Tuesday the he expects the
conservation reserve program (CRP) to take a big share of the cuts to
conservation programs. Not only is it the biggest single conservation program,
fewer land owners are signing up again for its10-year contracts due to higher
income from farming and renting farmland.

Hoefner would like to see
some of the savings from CRP used to extend the Wetlands Reserve Program, which
is part of the $9 billion in farm bill spending that runs out in 2012. (Another
expiring program, SURE, or supplemental revenue assistance payments program,
expires this year and is the biggest program without future funding.) 

The Wetlands Reserve Program
has an annual backlog of about 200,000 acres that farmers would like to enroll
and has already signed up 2 million acres, Hoefner said.

Other expiring programs were
aimed at helping beginning farmers and at improving local marketing of farm
products – “what we consider the newer, innovative, job creating programs that
Congress wisely put in the Farm Bill in 2008,” he said.

In a message to NSAC members
on Monday, Hoefner said, “Of particular concern to NSAC is the size of the
conservation reduction, which comes on top of a $3 billion reduction to farm
bill conservation mandatory spending already made via the annual appropriations
process, as noted in today’s letter from the Agriculture Committee leaders.  Those
cuts together with the ones being discussed by the Agriculture Committees would
equal a combined cut of 15 percent, effectively wiping out all the gains made
in the 2008 Farm Bill and about 40 percent of the gains made all the way back
in the 2002 Farm Bill and moving dramatically backwards on the greening of the
farm bill.”

Conservation groups are also
pushing for linking crop insurance to conservation compliance, a rule that was
dropped from farm legislation in 1996. They believe the federal government
should not subsidize farming practices that cause erosion. 

Dennis Nuxoll, who lobbies
for American Farmland Trust, says that for nearly all farmers, a conservation
compliance requirement would have no effect.

Only 5% of corn and wheat
farmers who have crop insurance do not get Title I farm program payments, which
are already tied to meeting USDA’s conservation requirements, Nuxoll said.

His group doesn’t favor
having crop insurance agents enforce conservation compliance. It would be
better to have the Farm Service Agency take on that role, he said. Crop
insurance was subject to conservation compliance from 1985 to 1996.

“It’s a system producers are
familiar with. Let’s use it and go forward,” he said.

American Farmland Trust is
one of two groups that lobbied Congress to create the ACRE (average crop
revenue election) program in the 2008 farm bill. Another top priority for AFT
is maintaining funds to support farmland preservation programs in areas facing
urban encroachment. 

Conservation programs have
already faced reduction in spending compared to original farm bill mandates.
And crop insurance programs that benefit farmers have already faced two rounds
of cuts projected to save the federal government $12 billion over 10 years
(although some congressional staffers say that the cuts have not really turned
out to be as steep as originally projected). 

Nutrition programs, too,
have already faced cuts. When Congress expanded the school lunch program in
2010, it mandated lower levels of spending on food stamps, starting in 2014.
That may be difficult to do if unemployment stays high.

Gus Schumacher, a former
Under Secretary of Agriculture who ran farm programs in the 1990s, agrees with
the congressional agriculture committees who wrote in their letter to the Super
Committee that USDA’s budget has already given a lot toward deficit reduction.

“Agriculture has taken
substantial cuts already in nutrition, conservation and crop insurance, as
emphasized in the committee letter,” he told Agriculture.com this week. “It’s
particularly important that nutrition suffer no further cuts, given its
importance for economic stimulus and the importance for America’s children, who
make up half of food stamp recipients.”

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