The USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) provides critical financial and technical assistance to farmers. Photo: US Department of Agriculture/Flickr

Trump’s “Skinny” Budget Would Starve Farmers of Support, Leave Kids and Seniors Hungry

, senior analyst, Food and Environment | March 22, 2017, 3:27 pm EST
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This post is a part of a series on Understanding the Budget

I wasn’t surprised to see that the president’s “skinny” budget proposal, released last week, would gut the EPA and the State Department. Appalled? Of course. But not really surprised, as the two-month-old Trump administration had already made its antipathy toward environmental protection and international cooperation abundantly clear.

But we’ve heard ad nauseam since the election that farmers and rural voters came out in droves to elect the president, believing he understood their problems and would help solve them. Rural voters felt forgotten, and throughout the campaign, candidate Trump told them they mattered. Now, with his initial budget document, President Trump seems to be telling them something quite different.

That’s because his budget proposal calls for a 21 percent decrease in funding for the Department of Agriculture (USDA), proportionally the third largest proposed reduction of any federal agency. The USDA serves all Americans, of course, but none more than farmers and rural communities.

The USDA’s budget overall would decrease by $4.7 billion, though specifically-identified cuts add up to nowhere near that amount, suggesting that we’ll see many more significant and specific cuts when the budget request is fleshed out in May. In the meantime, what are some of the consequences?

Trump’s cuts would gut research, financial and technical assistance that helps farmers

While the budget proposal lacks detailed reductions, it outlines deep cuts to staffing for the USDA’s Service Center Agencies, a little-known collection of agencies that includes the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS). Established as the Soil Conservation Service during the Dust Bowl in 1935 (the name was changed in 1994), NRCS works in partnership with farmers and ranchers, local and state governments, and other federal agencies to maintain healthy and productive working landscapes. In particular, the service offers financial and technical assistance to help farmers implement voluntary conservation practices to protect and enhance soil, water, and wildlife.

Drastic reductions in the number of field staff providing direct technical assistance to farmers would hamstring their ability to implement effective conservation practices such as cover crops—which can pose a challenge to farmers trying them for the first time. The president’s proposal suggests that staffing reductions would encourage “private sector conservation planning.” What this means is anyone’s guess, but it may signal dramatic changes to federal conservation programs, including reductions in financial incentives to farmers through NRCS. As recent UCS analysis has shown, farming practices supported by these programs can deliver major payoffs to farmers and taxpayers. But they only work if there is funding and people in place to carry them out.

The president’s budget proposal contains mixed but potentially troubling hints about the USDA’s continued commitment to agricultural research to help ensure the long-term sustainability of farming. It appears to maintain funding of the department’s Agriculture and Food Research Initiative—under which the USDA announced last fall it was increasing investment in agroecology—at FY16 levels, though this still falls short of what is needed. At the same time, however, last week’s budget document hints at significant restructuring of the USDA’s wide-ranging research and economics branch, which would alter the scope and priorities of federally funded agriculture research and statistics-keeping.

Trump’s cuts would put water resources and rural water supplies at risk

Remember when the Trump campaign promised Americans “absolutely crystal clear and clean water”? (It’s #194 on this list of campaign promises.) Well, even before the inauguration, I noted that many of the incoming administration’s decisions didn’t bode well for clean water. And though last week’s budget proposal trumpets its “robust funding for critical drinking and wastewater infrastructure,” a look at the details doesn’t inspire a lot of optimism. As Vox’s Sarah Frostenson writes, under this budget, EPA would have no new money to fix America’s crumbling water systems, and cuts to the agency’s enforcement office would hobble its ability to punish drinking water violations.

The budget would also eliminate EPA funding for long-running regional clean water efforts, including the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and Chesapeake Bay Program—both of which contend with significant pollution from farm runoff.

And crystal clear water for rural households? Not so fast. The budget blueprint would completely eliminate the USDA’s Water & Waste Disposal Loan & Grant Program, a rural development program that does what it says—provides funding for clean drinking water systems and improvements to sanitary sewage and solid waste disposal and storm water drainage in eligible rural areas. The budget blueprint calls it “duplicative,” almost laughably suggesting that the EPA could potentially be covering this. (One wonders how.)

Trump’s cuts could slash food programs that serve rural (as well as urban) communities

You’ve probably heard that the budget proposal eliminates federal funding for Meals on Wheels, though the White House is disputing that. The privately-run program will probably lose some funding as a result of federal budget decisions, though it’s unclear how much. But the largest federal nutrition assistance program, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps), is even more of a question mark. SNAP isn’t included in the skinny budget, but will likely see deep cuts in a more comprehensive budget proposal expected from the White House later this spring.

And if that happens, rural communities will be hit hard. SNAP is often regarded as a program serving urban communities, but research from the Center for Rural Affairs shows that rural areas have a larger percentage of households receiving SNAP benefits than either metropolitan or micropolitan (small city) areas. One in seven rural households—including many children and seniors—relies on this program.

When is a budget not really a budget?

President Trump’s shot across the budgetary bow suggests that his White House has little interest in investing in rural and farming communities or giving them the tools they need to thrive. You might notice a pattern here, as his budget proposal similarly thumbs its nose at coal miners, another constituency Candidate Trump courted.

Almost immediately, members of Congress (on both the left and the right) blasted the president’s budget as a betrayal of rural America, or dismissing it out of hand. The ranking member of the House agriculture committee went so far as to say that the document will be ignored, “as it should be.”

That’s a good reminder that, as in any year, the president’s budget proposal isn’t really “the budget.” As a UCS colleague pointed out, it’s Congress that actually sets the government’s spending levels and priorities. Which means this conversation is just getting started.

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  • David A.Carlson

    Do any Americans care about having enough food to eat? When populations do not have any, they get very upset. Can this happen to the USA? Have you heard about huanglongbin citrus disease, spread by billions of a tiny flying insect new to us? If Florida and California citrus is gone forever, then what? Bulldoze the orchards and build houses on the land and put hungry people in them? Agriculture is under fire all the time. This topic is a typical function of USDA research by dedicated scientists helping farmers who want to stay on the land….and feed us. I did this kind of work and am very proud of it. Especially since my first job offer was to make poison gas for the US Army.

    • kstillerman

      David, thanks for reading, and for emphasizing the point that publicly-funded agricultural research helps farmers and consumers in many ways. From helping combat weeds, pests, and diseases (like citrus greening) to developing and refining practices that conserve farmers’ soil and increase their resilience in light of a changing climate, this research is critical for our future. Check out my colleague Marcia DeLonge’s recent post on this topic (http://blog.ucsusa.org/marcia-delonge/these-investments-in-food-and-farm-research-will-pay-us-back-urban-and-rural-alike) and thanks for your past work as well!