Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Safety Net for Farmers or Rural U.S.?

Congress has largely ignored proposals from the Obama administration to cut program payments to some of the nation's larger farms. But, Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack's push to spend more money on rural development and spend less on farm programs is drawing some ire from lawmakers who want to preserve the current safety net for commercial farmers.

The $7.7 billion or so paid in commodity subsidies in 2009 helped lower overall grocery bills for Americans, according to defenders of farm program payments to farmers. (DTN file photo) Vilsack has been accused of promoting "bedroom communities" and wasting precious budget resources to prop up the urban locavore movement at the expense of production agriculture. Last week, Sens. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., Pat Roberts, R-Kan., and John McCain, R-Ariz., wrote a letter complaining that USDA spent $65 million last year on the "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program and is expanding the program this year.

"Unfortunately, this spending doesn't appear geared toward conventional farmers, who produce the vast majority of our nation's food supply, but is instead aimed at small, hobbyist and organic producers whose customers generally consist of affluent patrons at urban farmers markets," the senators wrote.

Just where did USDA get the authorization to spend money in that way, the senators want to know.

The complaint letter comes as Vilsack has become more vocal about the crisis rural America faces and suggests it could better be solved by focusing more on rural economic development and less on farm programs.

It's an argument that was made in 2005 by a report from the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City -- that farm program payments don't exactly translate into economic prosperity. In fact, the report showed that the counties most reliant on farm payments had stagnant job growth or outright job losses from 1992-2002, a time of generally good economic times.

"Farm payments are not providing a strong boost to the rural economy in those counties that most depend on them," the KC Fed report stated. "Job gains are weak and population growth is actually negative in most counties where farm payments are the biggest share of income."

To see the full report, visit:


But when Vilsack testified two weeks ago before the House Agriculture Committee, his stance that the next farm bill should place more emphasis on the overall economic needs of rural America drew fire from lawmakers, notably Ranking Member Frank Lucas, R-Okla., who suggested the Obama administration wants to turn rural America into "bedroom communities."

"If the administration has their druthers, it would be a farm bill only in title, not in substance," Lucas told a group of agricultural reporters last week. "Are we going to have a farm bill that helps farmers and ranchers continue to produce food and fiber to meet the needs of this country and the world, or are we going to have a farm bill that focuses on making sure people who happen to live in the countryside can find jobs somewhere else so they can drive home at night, drive to work the next day and drive home?"

Lucas also repeated a point made by lawmakers when the Bush administration put out a farm bill that also tried to cut spending on commodity programs. "In my tenure in this body, it's Congress that has written the farm bill," he said.

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