After voting for Donald Trump by the bushel, farmers may soon begin to believe the adage about not being able to judge a book by its cover.
And after taking gut punches on trade issues, the White House has released a budget proposal for the fiscal year beginning in October that will be a knock-out punch for many.
The proposal, found at www.whitehouse.gov/wp-content/uploads/2018/02/budget-fy2019.pdf, has draw some rather stern responses from farm organization leaders, a rather terse rejection from congressional agriculture leaders, and no response from the secretary of agriculture.
In fact, Sonny Perdue, visiting his staff members in western states, changed the topic to praise for the White House infrastructure plan released previously.
So what is so unsavory to agriculture about a proposed budget? One of the primary concerns is a significant overhaul of the crop insurance program.
Without going into the nitty-gritty details, the overall impact would be eliminate many farmers from the risk pool with the result being higher premiums paid by most farmers who remain dependent on crop insurance. The current program has about 80 percent participation by producers of hundreds of crops. More premiums paid in by those who also have a deductible risk, make the program all the more financially buoyant.
Eliminating farmers with large operations, as the proposal would do, removes their insurance premiums from the program, and raises premiums for smaller operations, which may opt out voluntarily because of cost. As the farm safety net has diminished over the years, farmers have begun to rely more on crop insurance to help finance their operations year to year by reducing financial risk. The Trump proposal would hit hard on agriculture after five years of diminishing farm income, and U.S. Department of Agriculture's projection that 2018 will be a sixth consecutive year.
Quick to respond to the extensive list of cuts in farm programs, conservation and in nearly every USDA program, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-KS) and U.S. Rep. Mike Conaway (R-TX) issued their response, leaving little to the imagination. "As chairmen of the Agriculture Committees, the task at hand is to produce a Farm Bill for the benefit of our farmers, ranchers, consumers and other stakeholders. This budget, as with every other president's budget before, will not prevent us from doing that job. We are committed to maintaining a strong safety net for agricultural producers during these times of low prices and uncertain markets and continuing to improve our nation's nutrition programs."
Yes, nutrition was one of those areas proposed for significant change by the White House budget proposal, along with conservation, meat and food inspection and rural development. Some of the most popular and productive conservation programs would see major cutbacks. Rural development grants totalling $938 million for small community waste water infrastructure would be eliminated and funding would be restricted to loans.
The famous “USDA Inspected” stamp on fresh meat would come with a price tag, and meat processors would have to pay for the privilege of having federal inspectors working at their facility. Checkoff programs which help agriculture fund research and promotion for many commodities would be charged by USDA for oversight costs. And grain inspection, which is used throughout the country to ensure quality would no longer be covered by USDA without $20 million being paid by users of the service.
The biggest change would be in the food and nutrition programs for recipients of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) whose advocates are important in the congressional passage of the Farm Bill. The Trump Administration proposes a $21 billion savings in the program by restricting recipients to a maximum of $90 per month for food coupons. They would receive a box of food products, including “shelf-stable” milk, ready to eat cereals, pasta, peanut butter, beans and canned fruit, vegetables and meat, poultry or fish.
One advocate for SNAP programs rhetorically asked, “One. What if you don't receive your box one month? Two. What if you're homeless? Three. What if you don't have a place to receive mail? Four. What if you move frequently? Five. What if you have allergies? Six. What if the box gets wet, or animals get into it? Seven. What if your kid is a fussy eater?”
Speaking of fussy, that will be a mild term for the budget debate, particularly in agriculture.