In mid-March, members of the California Roundtable on Agriculture and the Environment — pointing at a budget proposal from President Obama — began complaining that funding for popular federal conservation programs is being shifted. Days later, the environmental members of the ecumenical group said Arkansas Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s proposed increase in nutrition programs would also harm conservation funds.

Is such concern warranted? After speaking with those on both sides, it turns out that how one sees the issue largely depends on what one considers a “cut” in today’s political budgeting and accounting processes.

In a letter sent to Sen. Dianne Feinstein and Rep. Sam Farr (California Democrats and members of the Senate and House agricultural appropriations subcommittees) the Roundtable claims the Obama administration’s budget proposal would cut $500 million from conservation programs ($30 million from California alone) approved in the 2008 farm bill.

“The proposed cutbacks will result in increased financial burdens, hitting rural communities hardest,” said the March 12 letter. “Already hundreds of eligible farmers and ranchers are being turned away in California due to lack of funds. Unless we secure full funding for farm bill conservation programs, even fewer growers will be able to access these important program and many of California’s biggest environmental challenges will not be met.”

For the full letter, see http://bit.ly/dv309e.

For a list of roundtable members, see http://foodsystemalliance.org/crae/category/members/.

Of special concern is the extremely popular Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) which U.S. producers can access for assistance in upgrading protections for soil and water resources while also benefiting wildlife.

“Because EQIP requires a dollar-for-dollar match by the farmer, every dollar cut means a loss of $2 in projects to enhance California’s natural resources,” said Paul Wenger, California Farm Bureau president. “The EQIP program has been an important tool in helping farmers and ranchers enhance the stewardship work they already do.”

Even more recently, Sen. Lincoln, Senate Agriculture Committee chairman, has come in for criticism from environmental groups after introducing the “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act of 2010” that would massively increase funding for child nutrition programs. To increase nutrition funding, the groups claim EQIP funds would be raided and depleted by more than $2 billion.

The nutrition program bill “is a monumental step forward as we work to end childhood hunger and address the epidemic of childhood obesity in the United States,” said a statement from the Senate Agriculture Committee. “It invests roughly $4.5 billion in new funding in child nutrition programs over the next ten years — more new money than we have provided for child nutrition programs since their inception.”

Among programs that would benefit: the National School Lunch Program, School Breakfast Program, Special Supplemental Program for Women Infants, and Children (WIC), and the Child and Adult Care Food Program.

Environmental side

Basically, “the proposal on the table is to cap the EQIP program at $1.4 billion beginning in 2011,” says Kari Hamerschlag, senior agriculture analyst for Environmental Working Group. “It was supposed to be at $1.55 billion in 2011 and $1.75 billion by 2012.

“These were agreements made in the 2008 farm bill, which had very hard-fought battles for increases in conservation funding. (Proponents) achieved about a $4 billion increase over 2002. What we’re seeing now is an erosion of the agreement that was reached in 2008.”

Sen. Lincoln “is proposing to cut EQIP by $141 million in 2011 and $303 million in each of the following years. That adds up to a cut, over 10 years, of $2.8 billion in budget authority and $2.2 billion in outlays.”

Combining the Obama and Lincoln proposals means a $380 million “cut” that would “cap EQIP at $1.2 billion. What it says is ‘basically, we don’t want to invest in these programs that are so critical in protecting our water, our soil and air.’ These programs have been very effective. Particularly in California, we see a lot of EQIP funding going to support practices like Integrated Pest Management, nutrient management, cover crops and conservation crop rotation.

“Those four practices represent about 40 percent of EQIP funding in California and help farmers reduce their energy inputs, help reduce pesticide and chemical fertilizer use and help to conserve soil and organic matter. EQIP is helping to build healthy soils that sequester carbon and reduce nitrous oxide emissions.”

More 6,000 California farmers are applying for EQIP funds, says Hamerschlag, with only 1,700 receiving support.

“That’s a huge loss in opportunities to improve soil, water and air quality. We shouldn’t be pitting conservation against nutrition. Kids need healthy soil, healthy water and healthy food.”

When a “wide array of environmental groups join together with a wide array of mainstream farm groups to stand up together for conservation, politicians should pay attention. We hope they are. And I think they will because (such a coalition) is unusual — we certainly don’t agree on everything but we agree on this subject.”

True cuts?

Those concerns are overstated and/or disingenuous, according to several Mid-South political staffers and agriculture advocacy group leaders,. Not only are the EQIP “cuts” not going to happen, they say, but producers will actually get more money.

Both the 2002 and 2008 farm bills contained “authorized” levels of funding for the EQIP program. In the arcane language of Capitol Hill, those are essentially dollar figures that could be spent. For example, the 2008 farm bill authorized roughly $1.2 billion to be spent on EQIP initially. That went up in 2009 to about $1.4 billion and progressed to $1.6 billion and $1.8 billion in following years.

However, since 2002, the “authorized level” was never reached and what’s been provided to producers has been less.

What happens to those unused EQIP funds? They’re often “chimped” and allocated elsewhere — sometimes on political pork projects. For example, while $1.2 billion is authorized for EQIP this year, what’s actually being spent is $1.05 billion.

“In relation to the authorization level, it looks like a cut,” says one Arkansas official. “But there’s a difference between the authorization level and what’s actually appropriated and reaches producers’ pockets.”

Sen. Lincoln is not only capturing the unused authorized funds and sending them to nutrition programs instead of pork projects, but is also “forcing more money to be appropriated” to the EQIP program itself, insists another staffer.

“In ‘crazy D.C. budget world’ it may look like the program is being cut. But in actuality you’ve already been getting cut for years under that scenario. We’re insuring you’ll get more money next year.”

The staffer often talks to farmers and asks “‘would you rather be provided a really high, but fictitious, mandatory authorization level? Or would you rather have a check cut for a larger sum?’” Every time the farmers say, “‘Cut the larger check!’”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com