Ag supports seen on chopping block in U.S. debt deal

U.S. agriculture will have no choice but to face possible painful cuts as Congress wrestles with a deficit reduction plan crafted by lawmakers and the White House, a U.S. senator said Tuesday.

The deal, which the U.S. Senate and President Barack Obama approved Tuesday afternoon following the House of Representatives’ approval Monday, could rewrite rules on crop subsidies, land stewardship and new-generation biofuels.

“We have to expect that agriculture will have to contribute… to deficit reduction,” Sen. Kent Conrad, chairman of the Senate budget committee and a senior member of its agriculture panel, told the annual meeting here of the American Sugar Alliance.

Work on putting together a new Farm Bill will easily spill over into 2012 and that law may be the “most difficult” to craft, said Conrad, due to the coming presidential and congressional elections in the U.S.

The deficit plan would create a 12-member “super committee” to find $1.5 trillion in savings from the tax code and entitlement programs, which include crop supports (all figures US$).

“If they do not come up with $1.5 trillion in savings, agriculture would at that point be exposed” to cuts of its own, said Conrad.

He insisted though that agriculture should not be the only sector whose supports would be sharply reduced.

“We need to ensure that agriculture does not have a disproportionate share of the burden,” said the long-time senator from North Dakota who is retiring after next year. 

On Monday, small-farm activist Ferd Hoefner said if the super committee includes farm program cuts in a report due this fall, “that’s the vote… the commission is going to rewrite the farm bill.”

Lawmakers would not be allowed to amend the committee package, which would face a vote by Dec 23. Far-ranging automatic cuts would be made in federal spending if the plan is rejected, although programs for the poor would be shielded.

Rep. Michael Conaway of Texas told the same conference on Monday that any “changes should not be made just to save money.”

He said the House and Senate agriculture committees should be given leeway to write a coherent farm bill that provides a safety net for growers.

“Nutrition programs will be on the table along with everything else,” said Conaway.

Public nutrition programs, such as food stamps, account for the bulk of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s spending. A farm subsidy known as the direct payment, costing $5 billion a year, was cited frequently as a target for deep cuts or elimination. 

Written every few years, farm bills are panoramic legislation that cover farm subsidy, export promotion, agricultural research, renewable energy and public nutrition programs. 

Farm-program cuts would not take effect until 2013 under the deficit reduction plan, so lawmakers still might draft a farm bill next year.

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