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Ag budget should slash waste, not lifes essentials

Fri, May 6th, 2005
Posted in Commentary

What is the main purpose of agriculture in this country? If it is to feed people and support rural communities, as we believe it is, then taking a serious look at funding cuts being proposed for the U.S. agricultural budget is critical. Congressional agriculture committee chairs are proposing cuts that will decrease funding for people who need food and decimate programs that promote responsible care of our land. This simply is not right.

In March, budget drafts in the U.S. House reduced the agriculture budget for 2006 by $5.3 billion, and in the Senate by $2.8 billion. The House and Senate budget writers are now reconciling the cuts final amount. Many agree it would be best to minimize the size of the cuts. But if cuts must occur, Congress should reduce the waste at the top, and keep basic farm support, nutrition and conservation funding that helps millions of people and society as a whole.

The cost of the federal governments crop subsidy, or commodity, programs has averaged about $15 billion per year recently and is expected to reach $24 billion in 2005. These programs were originally designed to help family farmers. Congress has removed effective payment caps, allowing big agribusiness operations, especially in the South, to each get hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars annually for the production of five crops: cotton, corn, soybeans, rice and wheat.

According to the USDA, only 8 percent of producers receive 78 percent of the subsidies. Meanwhile, nearly two-thirds of our nations farmers do not get any payments at all. Given budget demands, the responsible thing to do is set payment limits so that nutrition and conservation programs do not bear the brunt of budget cuts.

We need adequate funding for food programs now more than ever. More than 25 million people in America rely on food stamps. In Minnesota, 247,000 people received food stamps each month last year. As a society, the choice to fund huge subsidies to mega-farms over basic nutrition programs increases the food insecurity of our most vulnerable citizens. During each month of last year, an estimated 126,000 Minnesota children and 22,000 elderly staved off hunger with food stamps. Cutting food stamps will leave thousands of children, elderly and disabled persons wondering where their next meal is coming from--the definition of food insecurity.

Because of a sluggish economy, the number of people who cannot always provide food for their families has gone up. For example, Channel One Food Bank and Food Shelf in southeast Minnesota has seen double digit increases in requests for supplemental food assistance during each of the past four years. Food shelves in many Minnesota communities had increases of 30 percent or more in the number of people they saw from 2002 to 2003, and again from 2003 to 2004.

In terms of food security and conservation, Congress decision to protect mega-subsidies at all costs could inflict major damage on our farmland, soil and water. Conservation programs have already been cut severely in the past two years, despite a huge backlog of farmers attempting to enroll in them. Decisions to make more cuts to programs that protect our nations long-term food security and environment are irresponsible. Drive through southern Minnesota this time of year and you can see eroded gullies, silt-laced streams and lack of wildlife cover. Soil scientists are so concerned that they wonder how much longer our farms can remain productive.

America needs basic farm supports, but the commodity programs need reform. A good example of such a reform is the Rural America Preservation Act of 2005. Authored by Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) and Senator Byron Dorgan (D-ND), this bipartisan bill reduces the level of commodity payments any one producer could receive annually from $360,000 to $250,000. It also closes loopholes that allow megafarms to collect even more than the stated limit. At $250,000, this cap could save more than $2 billion over the next five years.

We have four key legislators from Minnesota uniquely positioned to provide critical leadership when it comes to the future of our families and our farmers. Senators Mark Dayton and Norm Coleman, both members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, should support the Grassley-Dorgan bill. U.S. Representatives Gil Gutknecht and Collin Peterson, members of the House Agriculture Committee, could make a significant contribution to reform by authoring a House version of the bill.

Minnesota is a place where we lend a helping hand to our neighbors in need and where productive and well-cared-for farmlands define part of who we are and what we value. We encourage our elected representatives to remember these important Minnesota values as they make decisions regarding the 2006 budget.

Carla Johnson is the Executive Director of the Channel One Food Bank and Food Shelf in Rochester. Dave Serfling is a Preston farmer and member of the Land Stewardship Projects Federal Farm Policy Committee.

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