Farmers and ranchers have known for a long time that most federal lawmakers are notoriously uninformed when it comes to making decisions about farm policy. But what have long been laughable but serious errors on the part of legislators and policy makers in the past seems to have reached a pandemic crescendo of inefficiency in modern times as a war-driven economy and partisan politics have muddled the minds in Washington as ill-fated attempts to address federal budget concerns has spawned a plethora of actions that threaten to multiply problems rather than address ways to make them better, especially when it comes to farm policy.

While the problem extends far beyond agricultural issues, it is becoming apparent that farm policy will be taking more than its fair share of these misguided decisions by lawmakers, who seem to have lost touch with reality when it comes to understanding that U.S. agriculture plays as important or a greater role to a healthy nation as the banking and energy industries.

As balancing the U.S. budget, reducing the federal deficit, and determining whether profitable corporations should continue to receive corporate tax breaks takes the forefront in federal policymaking, agriculture has already taken a number of hits with many more on the horizon.

For example, when lawmakers and the White House ordered the USDA to cut its budget last year, an immediate plan to close a large number of agriculture research centers was one of the first decisions adopted as a way to help curtail deficit spending. In spite of researchers warning their bosses in Washington that such a move would leave gaping holes in food safety issues and in the development and oversight of deadly plant diseases and insect research, critical centers like the Kika de la Garza Subtropical Research Center in Weslaco, Texas, was ordered closed and the majority of its staff laid off.

Since that time, citrus greening disease has spread from Florida and has been confirmed in both South Texas and California. The same disease that decimated the Florida industry in recent years now threatens the destruction of citrus groves in Texas and California—a major blow to the U.S. citrus industry. The USDA center in Weslaco had been an active partner in studying the management and control of citrus greening in an area threatened by serious subtropical plant diseases just across the Mexican border.

But closing vital agricultural research facilities is just one of the problems generated by what appears to be misguided politicians and policymakers.

A federal tax credit for ethanol expired at the beginning of this year, ending an era in which the federal government provided more than $20 billion in subsidies for use of the product. The tax break, created more than 30 years ago, had long seemed untouchable. But in the last year, during which Congress was preoccupied with deficits and debt, it became a symbol of corporate welfare. Fiscal conservatives joined liberal environmentalists to end the tax credit, with help from a diverse coalition of outside groups, leaving ag investors hanging on a thread at a time when domestic production of ethanol should be flourishing.

 

Domestic food safety

Last summer the USDA's Microbiological Data Program (MDP) was the agency that ordered cilantro and bagged spinach that had tested positive for salmonella to be removed from grocery store shelves. It also forced a recall of lettuce that had tested positive for E. coli, and started testing cantaloupe regularly for Listeria after an outbreak that left 13 people dead.

As part of President Obama's 2013 budget, this program will be shut down.

Food and Drug Administration Produce Safety officials say that testing certain high-risk crops such as sprouts, tomatoes, and cantaloupe would now have to be undertaken by state and local agencies, many of which are already cash-strapped and short on staff.

While USDA has made a number of difficult budget cuts in recent months, to its defense it should be noted that almost all the cuts were mandated by lawmakers and policy managers in Washington. The agency seems to be making an effort to cut their budget as effectively as possible.

Providing the keynote address at the Mighty Mo Flood Conference held at the University of South Dakota last week, USDA National Office Food and Agricultural Council Executive Director John Berge said the agency is “doing as well as possible” with required budget cuts.

“Rural Development has lost about 30 percent of its workforce, and the Farm Service Agency (FSA) has lost 14 to 15 percent,” Berge said. “Many of our customers are not really thrilled that we are in the process of closing 259 USDA offices across the country.”

Of more concern are the lawmakers in Congress. Speaking about the 2012 Farm Bill, Congressman Henry Cuellar, D-Texas, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, says it is beginning to look like Congress will be making sweeping reforms in any new legislation if a new Farm Bill will even make it to the Congressional floor this year.

“The remainder of the 112th Congress is likely to be consumed by the debate of a variety of long-term pieces of legislation, including corporate tax reform, surface transportation funding and debt reduction provisions. Unfortunately, the likelihood of Congress taking up long-term agricultural reform legislation is not promising,” Cuellar says.

Say goodbye to direct payments and other subsidies

Also of major concern for farm legislation reform are direct payments and other farm subsidies, programs many lawmakers say are the target of tough debate as Congress attempts to reduce the federal deficit. But while reducing budgets gives the impression that money will be saved, that’s not always the case.

For example, in recent years, direct payments—a  type of farm commodity program payment—have made up a large share of Federal agriculture assistance that could be withheld from farmers who fail to comply with highly erodible land conservation (conservation compliance and sodbuster) or wetland conservation (swampbuster) provisions, known collectively as environmental compliance requirements.

If direct payments are sharply reduced or eliminated to help reduce the Federal budget deficit, compliance incentives would be reduced on many farms, potentially increasing environmental quality problems. Some farmers will still be subject to compliance through existing Federal agricultural programs (e.g., conservation or disaster programs) or programs that may succeed direct payments.

 

Policy makers are now saying making federally subsidized crop insurance subject to compliance could also make up some of the lost incentive to farmers.

In 2010, an estimated 448,000 farms (about 20 percent of all farms) received direct payments and accounted for 283 million acres of cropland. In the absence of direct payments, 126,000 of these farms (28 percent of cropland) would still be subject to compliance because they also receive conservation payments. Farms that receive disaster assistance are also subject to compliance, although data limitations preclude an exact estimate of farms that receive (or are likely to receive) disaster assistance.

Roughly 141,000 farmers, about 7 percent, operating on 33 million acres of cropland, or about 8 percent, received direct payments in 2010 but did not purchase crop insurance or receive conservation payments. For these farms, extending compliance requirements to cover crop insurance would not replace incentives lost if direct payments are ended.

In 2010, 181,000 farms (9 percent), operating on 141 million acres of cropland (36 percent), received direct payments and also purchased crop insurance, but did not receive conservation payments. For these farms, making crop insurance subject to compliance sanctions could compensate for compliance incentives lost if direct payments end. (1)

But in the end, it remains possible that ending direct payments could decrease conservation compliance which would, in effect, reduce farm land in America—another Congressional faux pas.

In times of economic trouble and debatable government spending programs, few farmers are questioning the need for lawmakers to be more responsible. It is the unbalanced approach of Congress and the current Administration to fairly treat the agriculture community on an even keel with other industries. But as lawmakers focus on an election year and on winning points for being fiscally conservative, all bets are off that farmers will get little more than a casual nod for their many contributions to the welfare of a hungry nation.

 

(1) Claassen, Roger. The Future of Environmental Compliance Incentives in U.S. Agriculture: The Role of Commodity, Conservation, and Crop Insurance Programs