By Bruce I. Knight

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.

The recent budget deal negotiated between Congress and the President for funding the federal government this year will reduce spending on agricultural conservation by more than $800 million. Obviously that’s a big cut. Is it fair?

Overall, the U.S. Department of Agriculture took $3 billion of the $38.5 billion in federal budget cuts agreed to in the deal. More than 25% of the reduction for agriculture will come from conservation programs managed by the Natural Resources Conservation Service.

Further, the chairs of the Senate and House agriculture committees have made it clear that these cuts are just the beginning as our nation seeks to put its fiscal house in order and reduce ballooning deficits. We all know that they’re right, and we have to find a way to stem the red ink. The key is to make sure that reductions are fair, equitable and appropriate.

For the current year, the budget deal cuts conservation operations by $18 million, watershed and flood prevention by $30 million, watershed rehabilitation by $22 million and eliminates the Resource Conservation and Development Program, saving $51 million and cutting 400 positions.

What about EQIP? Under the 2008 Farm Bill, EQIP spending was scheduled to rise to $1.588 billion for 2011. However, EQIP spending for 2010 was reduced from the $1.45 billion authorized in the farm bill to $1.18 billion. So, the cut of $350 million in the 2011 budget deal still leaves EQIP with $1.238 billion, which is $58 million more than what was actually available in 2010. Essentially, what has happened is that cuts in “mandatory” spending authorized by the farm bill for programs like EQIP enable appropriators to minimize spending reductions in other programs. Reductions of $118 million for the Wetlands Reserve Program, $39 million for the Conservation Stewardship Program and $118 million for the Watershed Rehabilitation Program also come from “mandatory” farm bill funding. If all of this is confusing let me put it more simply. Congress has been raiding these funds for years to pay for its earmark spending habits; they used the same old trick this time for budget reductions.

The question we need to ask, as the next farm bill develops, and as the effort to reduce federal spending continues, is: What is the best use of our limited funds for agriculture? Where should we invest for the future?

I believe support for conservation on working agricultural lands is critical. We need to support and improve on modern sustainability. We must focus on feeding people while at the same time reducing environmental impacts.

We’ve got to strike a balance between direct income supports or risk management versus an investment in productivity that will pay off in greater measure down the road. In my mind, that means prioritizing applied research and conservation investments today to ensure long-term profitability tomorrow.

For far too long as a nation, we’ve ignored the bills coming due. We haven’t paid attention to the future. Now, as we cut back our expenditures, I think we need to favor long-term strategies over short-term band-aids. Increasingly, we must put our funds where they will do the most good in building up the land, protecting the environment and increasing our capacity to produce food for our nation and the world.

About the author: Bruce I. Knight, Principal, Strategic Conservation Solutions, was the Under Secretary for Marketing and Regulatory Programs at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) from 2006 to 2009. From 2002 to 2006, Knight served as Chief of Natural Resources Conservation Service. The South Dakota native worked on Capitol Hill for Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, Rep. Fred Grandy, Iowa, and Sen. James Abdnor, South Dakota. In addition, Knight served as vice president for public policy for the National Corn Growers Association and also worked for the National Association of Wheat Growers. A third-generation rancher and farmer and lifelong conservationist, Knight operates a diversified grain and cattle operation using no-till and rest rotation grazing systems.

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