Obama’s budget proposal polarizes agricultural interests

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President Obama’s fiscal year 2013 budget request was sent to Congress this week. In it are some suggestions for the 2012 Farm Bill that, if enacted, could adversely affect California’s small to medium-size family farms.

The proposal hones in on Farm Bill conservation programs, calling for a one-year, $432 million cut to funding that would go to sustainable agriculture promotion and natural resource protection. This is on top of the administration’s proposal to slash $32 billion from the USDA budget over 10 years.

To meet its budget goals, the administration wants to phase out direct payments to growers of subsidized crops such as corn, wheat, cotton and rice and replace that safety net with a series of undetermined crop insurance programs. While California is less reliant upon commodity subsidies than states in the Midwest, California farmers still received almost $150 million in direct payments in 2010, according to data gathered by the Environmental Working Group (EWG).

“With respect to FY 2013 farm bill conservation program spending, the Obama budget proposes to layer still further cuts of $432 million on top of the more than $1.25 billion in farm bill conservation cuts enacted as part of the FY 2011 and FY 2012 appropriations bills,” writes Craig Cox in a recent AgMag article. “All of the proposed cuts would come from working lands conservation programs that help farmers protect natural resources and reward farmers for the environmental benefits they produce.”

Historically, as Cox points out, conservation requirements were attached to all subsidy programs from 1985 to 1996.

“The big fight now is whether to restore that modest obligation to a federal program that in its latest form actually insures farmers’ business income — not crop yield — at a cost of more than $8 billion a year,” he writes.

As lawmakers hint at an end to direct subsidies, the last major farm program linked to conservation, and as the conservation title of the Farm Bill bears the brunt of actual reductions through the appropriations process, it seems that lawmakers are willing to sever the link between conservation and subsidization forever.  Craig Hill, the new head of the Farm Bureau’s Iowa chapter explains in a recent op-ed why he believes crop insurance without conservation mandates is a fair proposal for the nation’s farmers:

“Because of torrential weather events like we’ve seen in recent years, we also know that linkage of conservation to crop insurance simply risks too much at a time when the stakes have never been higher for farmers. There are already 15 farm programs that link to the conservation title in the farm bill, so to deny crop insurance to farmers because of weather events beyond their control could put a farmer out of business in a single year’s event.”

The EWG calls this a bogeyman argument, pointing out that over half of the 15 farm programs with conservation requirements actually pay farmers to implement conservation practices. Both Cox and National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition Policy Director Ferd Hoefner have criticized crop insurance schemes, which the Farm Bureau are lobbying for to replace direct payments, as only beneficial to large agribusinesses.

“Nowhere in the President’s request is any indication given that the farm bill has an important role to play in economic recovery, job creation, and improved public health through renewal of funding for innovative programs that expire at the end of 2012,”  said Hoefner, according to Western Farm Press. “Frankly, the proposals are relatively lame and not at all progressive. Clearly, all the heavy lifting is left to Congress.”