American agriculture needs a farm bill that will help the federal government grow out of its deficit and not simply gut farm programs in a short-sighted attempt to reduce federal spending, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said today.

Speaking at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, Vilsack said he has no doubts that the next farm bill, which will either be written in 2012 or 2013, will be smaller than the law Congress passed in 2008.

“USDA is prepared to do as much as we can with fewer resources, but there is no doubt that cuts will have real impacts for American agriculture and the American people,” he said. “There are no easy cuts. Waste, fraud and abuse are real, but they represent only a tiny fraction of the budget picture.”

House budget cuts

Vilsacks’ comments came two days after the House Appropriations Agriculture Subcommittee approved a budget that includes $2.7 billion in reductions in USDA’s funding for fiscal year 2012. That’s on top of a budget for FY 2011 that was already 14 percent smaller than the previous year.

Among the cuts are reductions of $354 million in researching funding for USDA, $99 million for conservation operations for USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service and $338 million for rural development.

The 2011 budget, which was passed as part of a continuing resolution adopted by Congress in March, is already forcing USDA to make “tough choices” for the remainder of the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30.

“As a result of those cuts – and because I assume there will be more coming – I am asking top leaders at USDA to think creatively about how we do businesses,” he said. “Are there changes we could make in structure, program delivery, staffing, or responsibilities that would improve our efficiency or quality of service?”

Change direction?

But he also asked Congress to give serious thought to the direction the current budget process is taking:

“Please also recognize that we cannot simply cut our way out of a deficit – we have to help grow our way out. If we want grow businesses, create jobs, and increase incomes, we need to make sure America is built to compete. We will have to bear the cutbacks while still investing in our future, so that we strengthen the middle class, American agriculture and rural communities and grow our economy.”

In his remarks, VilsackAmerica’s farmers and our agriculture industry “are responsible in no small way for the health and strength of this nation. Not only do we rely on American agriculture for our food, feed, fiber, and fuel, our agricultural producers preserve our environment, and help drive our national economy.

Dust Bowl Revisited

“What’s more, the incredible productivity of America’s farmers and ranchers makes us more prosperous. American families spend only about 6 or 7 cents out of every dollar on food – less than in almost any other nation. That means we spend more on a nice home, save for retirement, or fund our children’s college education.”

Vilsack said he hopes the Senate Agriculture Committee will give serious thought to its priorities for American agriculture, USDA and to the values of the American people.

“In the end, the American farmer and rancher should be instructive to this body,” he noted. “The strength of American producers comes from their willingness to adapt, to work hard, to shoulder sacrifice, and to innovate.” 

In her opening remarks, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said innovation in American agriculture can help revolutionize global farming in order to successfully meet the needs of a growing and diverse world but the U.S. still faces many challenges to continue leading the world in productivity, innovation and sustainability.

“It’s easy to take our agriculture policies for granted – to assume that without them, things would work just the same as they do now,” she said. “But when we look back at history, we can only marvel at how far we have come. Today, people in the western edge of the Oklahoma panhandle are enduring the longest drought on record, with nearly 220 days without rain.

“That’s worse than the droughts experienced during the Dust Bowl. And yet we are not experiencing another Dust Bowl; the topsoil isn’t blowing away. That’s a testament to the good work our farmers and ranchers have done thanks to voluntary conservation efforts in the farm bill.”