The White House has released a budget blueprint that calls for deep cuts to USDA, sparking criticism from the MonDak’s Congressional delegates and its major farm groups.
The budget released by President Donald Trump proposes a 21 percent spending cut to USDA discretionary spending.
The likely effect of such cuts include reductions in staff at USDA field offices, as well as to USDA-ARS research units, of which there are two in the MonDak, one in Sidney and the other in Minot.
Chris Christiaens, with Montana Farmer’s Union, said they haven’t yet reviewed the proposal in depth, but in general he was critical of the idea of cutting staff to field offices.
“That would be God-awful for Montana,” Christiaens said. “I find it kind of interesting that this proposed budget for rural America and agriculture comes out before we even have confirmation hearings on the next director of the Department of Agriculture. Perdue’s hearings don’t start until next week, so there has been no opportunity for Mr. Perdue to have input into that particular issue.”
Mark Watne, with North Dakota Farmer’s Union, was also critical of the proposal.
“We have been taking cuts for budgetary reasons the last three or four farm bills,” he said. “This last one, we reduced our spending more than even expected. Just because we are part of a discretionary area and a smaller population source, it seems like they think they can just keep coming back to cut us some more.”
Watne was especially critical of the idea of cutting research funding, which is viewed by many as key to overcoming challenges that lead to crop losses and crop insurance payouts. The recent vomitoxin problem in the MonDak is an example where research is needed to overcome a pest that threatens to wipe out durum production altogether.
“Some of the things they are looking to take money from help farmers become more efficient,” he said. “It’s a sad state of affairs that no one wants to understand the value of family farming to agriculture, but it’s time to stop cutting us and investing in this amazing tool. We have the most abundant, lowest cost food in the world.”
He, too, was critical of having a budget out that has had no input from the agriculture secretary.
“I think it is odd doing the budget without people representing one of the most important industries in the country,” Watne said.
He believes agriculture needs more funding, not less, in particular to help develop value-added processing plants. These could not only help farmers find better prices, but at the same time help create jobs to stimulate the economy.
Dead on arrival?
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., said based on her conversations with other lawmakers, including her Republican colleague Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., said she believes Trump’s ag cuts, and, perhaps, many other cuts to programs that help rural areas such as Essential Air Service, are “dead on arrival.”
“Some increases to defense spending are needed, but it’s irrational to pay for those increases by crippling programs that strengthen American families and rural communities,” she said. “This budget would seriously hurt North Dakota and rural America.”
“The president’s proposed budget reduction for agriculture does not work,” Hoeven said in a media release. “Given the challenging times in the farm patch — from low commodity prices to natural disasters — we need to prioritize and maintain our agriculture budget. While we support more funding for our military and defense, we must maintain support for our farmers and ranchers.”
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., a member of the agriculture committee, said agriculture is a priority.
“In my conversations with Ag Secretary nominee Sonny Perdue, and as the only member of the Montana delegation on the ag committee, I have and will continue to consistently prioritize the importance of strengthening Montana’s agriculture, our state’s No. 1 economic driver for future generations,” he said. “We need to make government more efficient and effective without reducing funding for important programs.”
House will get
The House generally drives the budget, putting together the first pass, after which the Senate goes to work on it.
Rep. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D., said he supports beefing up the military — as do many of his Republican colleagues in the House — but added he thinks it would be “wrong-headed” to do so with deep cuts to agriculture.
“The current farm bill that we are living on that I helped pass as soon as I got to Congress was a pretty major cut,” Cramer said “And it has come in a hundred billion below the projected cost, and that’s during a low commodity price environment, a down swing in commodity prices. I think when it comes to stakeholders, farmers have definitely carried their part of the load on the budget side, so I absolutely don’t support the cuts the president is proposing.”
Cramer also expressed support for agricultural research.
“Without good research the last 25 years, corn wouldn’t be the No. 1 crop in North Dakota,” he said. “We have growing numbers of hungry people and shrinking acres to grow food for them.”
Research helps find ways to be more efficient and more productive, Cramer said, and tends to attract private sector money to maximize the government’s seed money.
“Research is the last thing that should be cut in agriculture,” he said.
Cramer had praise for Trump’s ability to negotiate prices down on the F-35 jets and Air Force One, and said not knowing what Trump has in mind specifically, he will keep an open mind. He has spoken with a former head of the Department of Agriculture, and so he believes it possible there are a lot of efficiencies that can be gained without hurting agricultural programs.
“But at the same time politically speaking, you’d expect a little more sensitivity to rural America,” Cramer added. “A lot of my friends do represent farm country, and his political success starts in mid-America. He was able to expand it into industrial Midwest and the northeast, and a lot of that is rural America and farm country.”
Trump’s proposal would take $4.7 billion from the USDA budget, but doesn’t outline too many specifics about where the cuts would come from. Field offices for the USDA would see staffing reductions and it zeroes out rural development programs that guarantee clean water for families and businesses.
“It would eliminate a program that provided $22 million just last year to help low-income North Dakota families, seniors, and folks in Indian Country heat their homes this winter,” Heitkamp said.
Flood protections would also be potentially jeopardized, she added, with a 16 percent cut proposed for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Trump’s budget also would end a federal program that guarantees affordable air travel in rural communities.
“This budget is a blueprint of the administration’s priorities, but it unfortunately leaves behind North Dakota and rural communities across this country,” Heitkamp said.
She and Cramer were both concerned with cuts to the National Institute of Health, the lead agency in the event of a pandemic.
“The reality is that we run a higher risk of being killed by a pandemic than a terrorist,” Cramer said. “So given that national defense is a high priority, it’s hard not to also consider the next pandemic and not be prepared for it.”