While the country was talking about what the Trump administration believes the federal government can do without, the House Agriculture Committee held two subcommittee hearings Thursday on subjects where groups said more federal dollars and investment are needed.
It was somewhat reflective of the duality in Washington, D.C. As President Donald Trump's administration looks to shift federal dollars and hold down spending, the White House proposes cut foreign aid, federal research dollars and other areas. At the same time, there are calls from groups in each of those programs arguing the federal government needs to boost spending.
The president calls for a $4.7 billion cut in discretionary programs at USDA next year, or roughly 21% of the department's various discretionary programs.
House Ag Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, issued a statement praising Trump's proposed increases to Defense while cutting EPA, blocking EPA's climate plan and reducing other regulations. Conaway, though, was more concerned that the "relatively small" USDA budget would come under cuts at a time when farmers are struggling.
"I think it is very important to remember that net farm income is down 50% from where it stood just four years ago," Conaway said. "America's farmers and ranchers are struggling, and we need to be extremely careful not to exacerbate these conditions. In fact, we need to do all we can to be there to help our farmers and ranchers. The work they do is critical. A well fed world is a safer world."
Conaway noted of the president's plan, "It is a proposal, not THE budget."
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said the president's plan "demonstrates a lack of understanding of farm programs and their impact on rural America."
Peterson cited proposed cuts to rural water and wastewater programs as one area where there's a lack of understanding of rural America.
“The good news is this budget will be ignored, as it should be. I urge the Administration to spend more time in rural America to gain an understanding of how things work and I hope that once an Agriculture Secretary is in place that he will be able to explain the value of these programs and services.”
On that note, the Senate Agriculture Committee announced Thursday evening that Sonny Perdue's confirmation hearing will be March 23.
Regarding those House Ag subcommittee hearings, they focused on research and forestry programs. People were not asking for less.
Rep. Rodney Davis, R-Illinois, who chaired the Subcommittee on Biotechnology, Horticulture and Research, noted that USDA programs and Extension agencies at land-grant universities help make U.S. agriculture the envy of the world. But the private sectors has taken over more of the workload in recent years while public funding has declined.
"Agricultural research increasingly occupies a smaller share of the United States’ public research portfolio," Davis said. "At the same time, other countries like China are rapidly outpacing U.S. public investment. Given that public research is often the foundation upon which private research is built, public investment is essential to maintaining the competitiveness of U.S. agriculture."
Land-grant universities and other institutions have answered the bell for research in past decades, which is reflected by U.S. agricultural production, but Jay Akridge, dean of Agriculture at Purdue University, said there remain significant complex issues ranging from more weather variability to access to water, environmental challenges, markets, consumer demand and biotechnology that demand research. Then there are issues such as food health that require more attention as well. Agricultural technology also is evolving quickly.
Richard Wilkins, a Delaware farmer represent the National Coalition for Food and Agricultural Research, said the coalition intends to lay the groundwork for a strong research title and funding in the next farm bill. Wilkins noted the funding for the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI) at USDA has been funded at $350 million a year, half of its authorized funding levels. Increased federal investment in food and ag science s is needed to boost productivity, animal and plant health, and nutrition, Wilkins said.
James Carrington, president of the Donald Danforth Plant Science Center in St. Louis, said one of the most important challenges of this century will be to provide food security to the globe while preserving natural resources and a healthy environment. He added that federal spending on science in agriculture has extensive economic payback. He called for strengthening funding for AFRI as well, but also had recommendations for changing the way AFRI funding some research institutions.
The second hearing was on forestry. There too were more calls for higher funding levels to deal with the management of federal forests -- including expanding markets for wood -- and providing more technical assistance to private landowners through USDA conservation programs. Further, there were calls to fix the budget for fighting forest fires, as was the testimony of George Geissler, Oklahoma's state forester. The Trump administration keeps expenses for fighting forest fires at a "fully funded" $2.4 billion. The problem has been that forest fires have become such a problem that USDA was spending as much as $864 million more every year to deal with them. The White House also proposes other cuts to forestry programs.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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