The Washington Post

Conservation programs, other farm subsidies targeted in federal budget battles

Over the past five years, Nebraska farmer Kevin Raun has submitted numerous conservation plans to the USDA for funds to convert his family cattle and corn farm into an eco-friendly place.

Raun said the work seemed to finally pay off when the Agriculture Department pre-approved him for a Conservation Stewardship Program contract this year, but that was before conservation programs took unprecedented hits last month during the final days of the 2011 budget debates.

“I had to jump through a lot of hoops, so I hope the money is there,” Raun said. “My feeling with these budget cuts is that they need to preserve the conservation programs and limit how much they are giving in subsidies to large, wealthy farmers.”

This debate over conservation vs. subsidy cuts is at the heart of discussions on Capitol Hill as lawmakers begin to shape the 2012 budget and begin talks about the next Farm Bill — a critical document because it sets funding priorities for the next decade.

Conservation programs were cut by nearly $500 million last month for the 2011 budget, and the House budget for 2012 calls for another $18 million in conservation cuts. What’s unclear is how many of those cuts will come out of the USDA’s budget.

The Obama administration’s push to spread some of the pain to the wealthiest, most profitable farms, however, is also gaining momentum. The House budget calls for $30 billion in subsidy cuts over the next 10 years.

“There is a growing feeling that [Congress] must find a way to make sure that the cuts affect everyone,” said Ferd Hoefner, policy director for the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, “to make sure the mega-producers are not the ones let off the hook this time around. “

To get around cuts in the past, corporate farms would add a partner or two that could then apply for separate subsidies, thereby restoring the overall take to prior levels.

Members of Congress from both parties are looking for ways to close off that option so subsidies are used to help farmers get through lean times — not simply bump up already good profits. In turn, environmentalists hope these savings from subsidy cuts might help spare deeper cuts in conservation programs in the years to come.

A study by the USDA’s Economic Research Service shows that farms that make the highest profits receive the highest levels of subsidies. For example, farms with an annual income of $210,000 receive an average of $30,000 or more. Farming operations that earn $110,368 receive $10,000 to $29,999, and farm households that make $70,117 get between $1,000 and $9,999.

Though Raun fits into the upper tier on subsidy payments, he considers himself to have a medium-size operation. He hopes that as the Senate begins its work on the budget this summer, lawmakers will find ways to reduce funding for the wealthiest farmers while preserving programs that will help people such as him retool their operations to reduce pesticide use and prevent soil erosion.

“The farmers I know, they know they are going to be getting less,” Raun said. “I don’t think there is any doubt about that. Right now grain and livestock prices are really high, so we don’t need as much help right now, but it’s good for everyone if we have conservation programs.”

In a statement, the USDA said it is working to find ways to minimize the impact of the most recent cuts to conservation programs.

“USDA isn’t immune to the fiscal challenges facing America, and our current FY 2011 budget includes some difficult sacrifices in order to maintain our country’s fiscal health,” the statement said. “While our conservation programs took a reduction in the final budget for FY11, USDA will continue to lead on priority areas such as watershed restoration, using an all-lands approach to restoring and maintaining our precious natural resources, and help ensure clean drinking water for millions of Americans.”

Kimberly Kindy is a national investigative reporter at The Washington Post.

The Freddie Gray case

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!

Campaign 2016 Email Updates

Please provide a valid email address.

You’re all set!
Comments
Show Comments
The Republicans debated Saturday night. The New Hampshire primary is Feb. 9. Get caught up on the race.
Highlights from Saturday's GOP debate
Except for an eminent domain attack from Bush, Trump largely avoided strikes from other candidates.

Christie went after Rubio for never having been a chief executive and for relying on talking points.

Carson tried to answer a question on Obamacare by lamenting that he hadn't been asked an earlier question about North Korea.
The GOP debate in 3 minutes
Listen
Play Video
Quoted
We have all donors in the audience. And the reason they're booing me? I don't want their money!
Donald Trump, after the debate crowd at St. Anselm's College booed him for telling Jeb Bush to be "quiet."
Listen
Play Video
New Hampshire polling averages
Donald Trump holds a commanding lead in the next state to vote, but Marco Rubio has recently seen a jump in his support, according to polls.
New Hampshire polling averages
A victory in New Hampshire revitalized Hillary Clinton's demoralized campaign in 2008. But this time, she's trailing Bernie Sanders, from neighboring Vermont. She's planning to head Sunday to Flint, Mich., where a cost-saving decision led to poisonous levels of lead in the water of the poor, heavily black, rust-belt city. 
55% 38%
Upcoming debates
Feb. 11: Democratic debate

on PBS, in Wisconsin

Feb 13: GOP debate

on CBS News, in South Carolina

Feb. 25: GOP debate

on CNN, in Houston, Texas

Campaign 2016
State of the race

To keep reading, please enter your email address.

You’ll also receive from The Washington Post:
  • A free 6-week digital subscription
  • Our daily newsletter in your inbox

Please enter a valid email address

I have read and agree to the Terms of Service and Privacy Policy.

Please indicate agreement.

Thank you.

Check your inbox. We’ve sent an email explaining how to set up an account and activate your free digital subscription.