The Trump administration’s FY 2018 budget proposal makes widespread cuts in USDA’s farm and nutrition programs, but few of them could be of more long-lasting effect than those aimed at the Agriculture Department’s conservation efforts.
According to a review by the USA Rice Federation, the Trump blueprint would reduce USDA conservation spending by more than $5 billion at a time when farmers are making greater use of the programs to improve conservation of land and water resources.
USA Rice leaders said the budget calls for a $100-million reduction in spending for Conservation Operations, the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service account that funds conservation planning and technical assistance throughout the country, and elimination of the Conservation Stewardship Program and the Regional Conservation Partnership Program.
The budget clearly picks winners and losers. “It’s almost as if someone went down a list and Xed out every other program,” said one observer not connected with USA Rice. “There appears to be very little rhyme or reason to what they did.”
Some are beginning to question how much, if any, input USDA had into the budget released by the White House Office of Management and Budget on May 23. The administration claims the $4.1-trillion budget will increase economic growth by 3 percent, an overly optimistic estimate, according to most economists.
'My job to implement'
Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue seemed resigned to trying to make the budget proposal work at USDA without giving it a ringing endorsement in the statement he released after the budget proposal was distributed.
“President Trump promised he would realign government spending, attempt to eliminate duplication of redundancy and see that all government agencies are efficiently delivering services to the taxpayers,” he said. “And that’s exactly what we are going to do at USDA.
“Having been the governor of Georgia from 2003 to 2011 – not during the best economic times – we did what it took to get the job done…. Whatever form the final budget takes, it is my job as secretary of agriculture to manage and implement that plan, while still fulfilling the core mission of USDA.”
USA Rice officials noted the president’s budget has “received a rough reception from the agriculture community since it appears to gut programs important to his core ag-based constituency and leans disproportionately heavily on agriculture to find ‘savings.’”
They said the budget does appear to pick winner and losers with the Environmental Quality Incentives Program or EQUIP receiving a $250-million bump and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) getting a $450-million annual increase.
CSP, RCPP get the axe
“The losers are the Conservation Stewardship Program – no new sign ups – the Regional Conservation Partnership Program – eliminated – and a few cuts to the Conservation Reserve Program,” USA Rice said. “In addition, there is a new Adjusted Gross Income for conservation programs of $500,000 vs. the current $900,000.”
While the “proposed increase in funding for EQIP is warranted, the proposal appears to pay for the increase by scaling CSP down and eliminating RCPP, both of which are important programs for rice production and the habitat rice farms provide for migrating waterfowl,” said Louisiana rice farmer Jeff Durand, who co-chairs the USA Rice-Ducks Unlimited Rice Stewardship Partnership.
“The administration says they are attempting to better target conservation funding, but what they're really doing is arbitrarily gutting programs that work – for both the environment – specifically for wildlife habitat and water quality – and for growers who are facing staggeringly tough times and use these programs to pursue sustainability goals,” said Ben Mosely, USA Rice vice president of government affairs.
The National Sorghum Producers and other farm organizations responding to the administration proposal demanded to know why agriculture is being asked to shoulder more cuts in farm programs when it’s already contributing to deficit reduction.
“In view of the hard times in farm and ranch country and the fact the current farm bill is on target to save taxpayers $104 billion, National Sorghum Producers urges Congress to craft a responsible budget that will enable the agriculture committees to develop and pass a strong farm bill on time,” said NSP Chairman Don Bloss, a sorghum producer from Pawnee City, Neb.
Bloss encouraged his members to contact their House members and senators and express disappointment and disapproval of the administration’s budget proposal.
One provision in the Trump budget would eliminate the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. The ARPA-E has invested nearly $90 million in sorghum over the last two years, including a $30-million commitment for research into the use of sorghum as a model feedstock through the Transportation Energy Resources from Renewable Agriculture program.
The Sorghum Producers also cited the elimination of the Foreign Market Development Program and Market Access Program as a major problem in the budget proposal. “These programs help leverage investment in promoting sorghum in international market places through organizations like the U.S. Grains Council,” it said.
Ag Exports Count, a group of organizations representing farmers and ranchers, fishermen and forest product producers, cooperatives, small businesses, regional trade organizations and the state Departments of Agriculture, says the MAP and FMD programs contributed to a $2.1-billion increase in farm cash income from 2002 to 2014.
The National Corn Growers Association was also critical of the budget, which it said appeared to be calling on Congress to renege on promises it made during the drafting and passage of the 2014 farm bill.
Wait for new farm bill
“The time and place to debate farm bill programs is during the farm bill reauthorization, not the annual budget process,” the NCGA said in a statement. “The farm bill represents a five-year commitment to America’s farmers and ranchers, which Congress made in 2014. We are counting on Congress to honor that commitment.”
The Corn Growers said its members believe targeting the federal crop insurance program is “extremely shortsighted. It is especially harmful during an extended period of low commodity prices. Our members consistently tell us that crop insurance is their most important risk management tool.”