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Ag needs to be a squeakier wheel in farm bill debate

By Matt Reese

The squeaky wheel gets the grease, they say. And, right now, the wheels of federal farm programs are running smoothly, which may not bode well for the farm bill and agricultural funding amid the tight budget situation.

Agriculture is one of the few areas that has been proactive in light of the budget concerns in Washington, D.C. Joe Shultz, senior economist for the U.S. Senate Committee of Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, told attendees at the Ohio Grain Farmers Symposium back in mid-December about how agriculture tried to do its part in the failed Super Committee.

“Only one committee in the U.S. Congress stepped up and worked to create a reasonable plan to save money – the House and Senate Ag Committees,” Shultz said. “The thing that makes me proud to work in ag is that we were the only committee to come together on a bipartisan basis and give our fair share. We came up with $23 billion in cuts over 10 years. That is about 2% of the proposed cuts for the Super Committee and agriculture is about 2% of the federal budget.”

The effort, though, was all for naught as the Super Committee proved to be a colossal failure as a whole. Since then, farm policy has once again proven itself as the U.S. Department of Agriculture just announced that government payments paid directly to agricultural producers are expected to total $10.6 billion in 2011, a 14.4% decrease from the estimate of $12.4 billion paid out in 2010. If the estimates are correct, this would be the lowest amount paid to producers since 1997.

The largest decreases in payments are expected in disaster relief payments and Average Crop Election Program (ACRE) payments. Though this is a very timely announcement about the success of these programs in terms of the farm bill and budget debates, the political wave from this announcement may not be much more than a ripple in Washington’s sea of budgetary woes.

“This is how the programs are supposed to work, they pay when farmers need help. They don’t pay when they don’t,” said Adam Sharp, with the Ohio Farm Bureau. “It should matter, but likely won’t matter much politically.”

More likely, agriculture is facing a disproportionate share of federal budget cuts that could weaken the success of these programs and the safety net for producers that may be more important than ever with the high risk, high volatility months and years ahead. All of agriculture needs to encourage Congress to move forward with equitable funding for agriculture in what will become an increasingly challenging farm bill amid the budget crunch.

“You need to tell members of Congress that we need to move forward right now because we all risk losing if we can’t move forward together,” Shultz said. “We are at a pivotal moment in farm policy right now. We are seeing a shift towards risk management and that means the work is hard.”

And that may mean that the wheels of agriculture need to start squeaking a bit louder.

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