As farmers and ranchers across the country struggle this summer to overcome devastating crop, livestock and structural losses from drought, wildfire, storms and floods, they face another insidious threat to their ability to make repairs, restock, replant and get on about their business—the U.S. Congress.
While ranchers are disposing of animal carcasses or selling off herds; while farmers are planting into dust, realizing the probable futility of their actions but unable to do otherwise because of crop insurance mandates; while rural communities struggle to relocate or rebuild following floods and destructive storms, their elected officials are slashing funding for programs crucial to their recovery.
One of the most ill-conceived reductions Congress has made so far is the cut to the Farm Service Agency (FSA), the agency that oversees farm programs, works with farmers and ranchers on applying for loans or disaster relief funds following drought, flood, fire or other disaster.
Just in Texas, FSA has worked with $2.3 million less for fiscal year 2011 than they spent in fiscal year 2010. With every continuing resolution Congress passed, FSA’s budget shrank a little more. And they face even more cuts as legislators debate 2012 expenditures.
The U.S. budget deficit, most reasonable folk would agree, must be tamed. And it should be evident that reducing spending must be part of any solution to get that number down. But Congress’ slash and burn strategy with apparently little consideration for the long range ramifications of their actions will, in the end, do more harm than good.
FSA programs put money back into farmers’ and ranchers’ pockets following crop and livestock losses. Those funds allow farmers to replant, replace lost equipment, repair fences and restock herds. As money goes out to buy barbed wire, seed and fence posts, rural communities get a boost as farm supply companies, equipment dealers and local merchants see sales increase. Tax revenues improve, folks keep jobs, the economy improves.
But when lack of operating funds delay issuance of those check to qualified producers the entire community suffers. Some businesses, some farms, some ranches may never recover.
Currently, Texas and other state FSA offices are working without the temporary employees they need to process applications and get funds where they are sorely needed. FSA staffs have severe travel restrictions, limited county committee meetings and reduced office support for items such as postage.
What that means to the producers waiting on checks is delay. And those delays will become longer as the mass of applications that will be inevitable following this disastrous spring begin to hit FSA offices in the coming months.
FSA may come in for criticism from time to time as producers express frustration with government bureaucracy and what seems an agonizingly slow process to receive approved funds. But as the Texas state FSA director recently said, the agency is committed to accuracy and to fulfill its mission effectively and efficiently. And with the disasters that occur somewhere every year, delays and frustration will be inevitable. But to hamstring an agency as vital to the well-being of farmers, ranchers and rural communities by stripping it of adequate operating funds to efficiently perform its mission is far beyond ridiculous.
FSA is not alone. Other programs vital to serving agriculture are also in for severe budget cuts. And targeting agriculture is both short-sighted and non-productive. There is simply not enough money in the farm program budget to make event a small dent in the deficit. But agriculture is an easy target.
Congress should take balancing the budget seriously, but cuts to programs as vital as FSA should come only after considerably more reflection than has apparently been the case so far.