By SUSAN BLOWER
WASHINGTON D.C. — Farm groups had mixed reviews of President Barack Obama’s proposed 2017 USDA budget, released last week. While cutting $18 billion from crop insurance, the proposal almost doubles funding for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) to $700 million and fully funds conservation for ag lands and conservation practices.
“We once again find ourselves fighting attempts to cut crop insurance,” said Richard Wilkins, American Soybean Assoc. (ASA) president and a farmer from Greenwood, Del. “Our policy has always been that we will strongly and absolutely oppose any attempt to target farm bill programs for additional cuts, and it goes without saying that we will continue to fight proposed cuts to the farm safety net.
“All it takes is a quick glance around the farm economy to see that we need a stronger safety net for our farmers, not a weaker one.”
The National Assoc. of Wheat Growers (NAWG) also criticized the attempt to cut $18 billion over 10 years from crop insurance. NAWG said this would be accomplished by reducing the premium subsidy for policies with the Harvest Price Option by 10 percent.
“The administration has proposed similar cuts in the past, which have been rejected by Congress. However, the inclusion of this provision continues to underscore the need for grassroots engagement by farmers across the country to defend the crop insurance program and Title One during the upcoming appropriations process,” NAWG stated.
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack encouraged Congress to accept the reforms in crop insurance, which will reduce taxpayer burden for the program and create a more “equitable and balanced” program.
The ASA disapproves of the lack of funds proposed for national waterways, which amounts to a 22 percent cut, Wilkins said.
“We’re disappointed with this budget’s neglect of investments in waterways infrastructure, which is vital to rural economies as it is a means of efficient transportation of soybeans and a key component of our global competitiveness in export markets,” he explained.
“Infrastructure investments should not be limited to highways, mass transit and high-speed rail, but should include those aspects important to rural America too. ASA will continue to work with industry partners and Congress to build on the successful increases in investments achieved in fiscal year 2016.”
Vilsack said the 2016 budget for the USDA is smaller than that in 2010. Despite that difference, he said USDA is prepared to make record investments and loans in agriculture.
“This is owing to the great work of the people in USDA. They have to do more with less,” he said. “Budgets are about balancing priorities and needs ... Without a budget you don’t get the benefits. It creates uncertainty.”
Vilsack highlighted the following administration priorities: investment in rural economies, loans for beginning and diverse farmers and ranchers, expanded summer feeding program for impoverished children, “fixing” wildfire funding for forests and rangelands and increasing exports to Cuba, as well as investments in ag research (AFRI).
ASA noted the budget contains funding for multiple soybean farmer priorities, including increased resources for oversight at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) and full funding for the Market Access Program and Foreign Market Development program.
“The MAP and FMD programs are an essential part of our industry’s work to establish and expand the beachhead for American soybeans in foreign markets,” Wilkins said. “That money helps to fund valuable research and market development work by the U.S. Soybean Export Council, which translates directly into increased exports and revenue for American soybean farmers.”
The ASA and NAWG, as well as the National Assoc. of Conservation Districts, applauded the proposed full funding provided in the farm bill for conservation programs. “The challenge is for us to continue to be good stewards of the land and water. This budget would put record acres into conservation,” Vilsack said.
Wilkins said increasing visits with lawmakers is essential to their understanding of farmers’ concerns. “Every year, we bring the same funding fight down to the wire in November and December. Party leaders hold one another’s feet to the fire, and at the 11th hour we manage to eke out funding for programs that are essential to farmer success.
“Regardless of the long-term prospects of this specific proposal, let’s use it to at least start a discussion about how important these programs are to farmers, and how we get them funded for the coming year.
“That work has to start with farmers,” added Wilkins.
“We need to turn up our volume and increase our face-time with lawmakers so that they understand these programs aren’t simply line items on a budget, but real, working tools that help us operate more successfully.”