Budget “Super Committee” collapse leaves farm spending open

Collapse of the federal budget “Super Committee” leaves farm subsidy and conservation programs both open to potential funding loss and farmers and environmentalists each on their own in defending them.

The Federal Farm Bill, up for reauthorization in 2012, has been under intense Congressional scrutiny for potential savings in the current budget crisis.  Budget Hawks, Tea Party activists, and some urban Congressional Members are targeting the direct payments and price support assistance some farmers receive claiming the government can no longer afford these subsidies.

The vulnerability of Farm Bill subsidies like the Direct Payments program (described here) has been clear for many years, and it is especially obvious in our current fiscally desperate times.  The public doesn’t much like subsidies – of any kind.  And while there are a lot of us that appreciate and support our nation’s agriculture industry, it has never been entirely clear exactly what the public gets in return for the billions spent on farm subsidies, other than to help out some of our farmers.

For at least the past couple of 5-year Farm Bill reauthorization cycles, environmentalists have repeatedly and unsuccessfully asked farmers to help shift subsidy spending to farm conservation incentive programs that help more farmers and that give the public something tangible for their money.  Had farmers done this, they would today have support from environmentalists in keeping that money in agriculture.  Instead, the Ag industry’s reticence to make that change may now be coming home to roost.

Subsidies, however, are not the only programs at risk.  Farm Bill conservation programs are also up for grabs.  Among the potential environmental program victims of the coming year’s budget frenzy may, for example, be the Conservation Reserve Program.  CRP leases environmentally vulnerable and low farm-yield lands from farmers to protect their environmental values, including bird and other wildlife habitat.  With the recent collapse of the budget “Super Committee,” it now appears that CRP could also become a casualty of the U.S. debt crisis.  (See, a recent article by Phillip Brasher in ArgusLeader.com, “Farm Bill Will Reshuffle Winners, Losers,” (11/27/11). With an agriculture industry that is lukewarm in its support for conservation programs, that leaves these programs vulnerable as well.

The real tragedy, and the obvious irony of these likely cuts in Farm Bill spending, is that much of the loss, on both counts, could probably have been avoided.  If farmers and environmentalists were collaborating to protect funding for strong, publicly-popular, farmer-friendly conservation programs, that alliance would be hard to beat in Congress.  Instead we’re likely to see a great deal of critically needed money disappearing out of Federal Farm Bill commodity and conservation programs over the coming year.

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