Federal budget cuts could hurt California farmers and conservation groups

Obama’s proposed 2011 budget has California conservationists fretting. Several agricultural conservation programs initiated in the 2002 Farm Bill (whose funding has declined each year since then) are now facing drastic cutbacks. The concerned groups argue that the proposed cuts could result in further damage to California’s rural economy and halt the steady progress being made to make the state’s farms more sustainable and ecologically sound.

In a letter addressed to Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Ca) and Representative Sam Farr (D-17th District), two dozen agricultural, environmental and labor organizations pleaded with the Senate and House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee members last month to maintain funding for farm conservation programs at levels mandated in the 2008 Farm Bill. 

The California Roundtable on Agriculture and the Environment (CRAE), the conglomeration of groups that authored the letter, consists of organizations from every field concerned with the impact of farm practices on California’s environment, a point of convergence that poses many challenges for the agricultural sector.

According to the letter, agriculture’s success in meeting these challenges will:

     provide important public benefits for our urban and rural residents through the protection of water resources, improved air quality, preserved open space and wildlife habitat, increased carbon sequestration and reduced greenhouse gas emissions, improved community and worker health, and a safe and nutritious food supply.

Of the $500 million set to be slashed from the agricultural budget, at least $30 million would have gone to California to fund meeting these goals.

The program which stands to take the biggest hit is the Environmental Quality Incentives Program. Nearly half of California’s 2009 EQIP funds went to promulgating sustainable farming techniques which reduced the use of chemicals on crops and thus improved the quality of the water percolating into the ground. These practices make for healthier, less impoverished soil resulting in more nutritionally dense crops.

According to CRAE, the fallout from reduced conservation funding in California will not just be felt by farmers. It will damage local economies which rely on the business which the programs facilitate.

The letter continues:

     EQIP (and other conservation program) funded projects require design, construction, documentation, and maintenance activities, provided by private local businesses. According to NRCS data for the Environmental Quality Incentive Program (EQIP) for California in 2009, more than 6,000 applications were received requesting more than $100 million. Only 1,700 applications were funded with the available $58 million.

Because conservation projects financed by programs such as EQIP require landowners to put up matching dollars, CRAE argues that “for every conservation dollar cut, two dollars in “shovel ready” projects will be lost.”

The proposed budget only provides 66 percent of the total funding promised for EQIP in the 2008 Farm Bill. As is indicated by the NRCS data cited above, demand for program dollars already far outstrips supply.

It seems that farmers and conservation groups will need much more than that $380 million they’ve been shorted to fully realize their conservation goals.