Agriculture research and education were not spared when the House Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee passed a FY2012 budget plan May 23. Tasked with drastically cutting programs under its purview, the subcommittee came up with $17.2 billion in proposed spending for fiscal year 2012.

That amount would be a 14 percent cut over FY 2010 with reductions of $354 million for agricultural research, $99 million for conservation operations through the Natural Resources Conservation Service and $338 million for rural economic development programs.

For more, see House subcommittee voting on $2.7 billion in ag spending cuts.

With the proposed House plan still fresh, during a May 26 Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, members repeatedly claimed agriculture was being disproportionately targeted for cuts.

Testifying before the committee, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack did not disagree. To justify spending on agriculture programs, Vilsack pointed to a chart showing “over the last 30 years if you looks at ‘real growth in spending by function (in terms of outlays in constant dollars),’ agriculture … has pretty much flat-lined. I think that’s an important consideration as (Congress) allocates resources and reductions. Agriculture has been a good steward of the fiscal resources provided to it.”

In later testimony, Vilsack said “Candidly, I think the USDA has taken a disproportionate share of the cuts. We’re now at a place where I’ve had a serious conversation with all the undersecretaries … where (I) said ‘Look, we’re looking at potentially a 25 to 30 percent cut in our discretionary budget. That means we have to start thinking about what we can do as well as what we can’t do.’”

One vital area Vilsack would spare from major cuts is agricultural research, which he claimed returns $10 for every dollar spent.

“At a time when we ought to be out innovating, out building and educating … to be competitive, we’re reducing our commitment to research. We should actually be looking at ways in which we can leverage an increase in our commitment to research.

“Research is one of the reasons we have higher productivity. It is producing genomes. It’s producing more information and knowledge that allows us to protect our crops against pests and diseases. It’s developing new technologies and ways to produce crops more effectively and efficiently. It’s something we ought not to shortchange.”

Consequences/land-grants

Among those potentially facing a heavy funding axe are land-grant institutions and their agriculture researchers, educators and programs.

Shortly after the budget plan passed out of the House subcommittee, Delta Farm Press spoke with D.C. Coston, vice-president for Agriculture and University Extension at North Dakota State University. Coston also chairs an Association of
Public and Land-grant Universities
(APLU) committee on the farm bill. Among his comments:

On the House subcommittee plan…

“The House Ag Appropriations Subcommittee reported out (on Monday). The budget for the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA), which funds most of the programs that the land-grants work with, is proposed to have a cut around 16 percent compared to the current fiscal year.

“The way it works, various committees are given allocations of money by House of Representatives leadership. They then divvy it up among the programs they work with. As best I can see, there was no malice (with the proposed cuts) -- there are some very strong proponents of agricultural research and education sitting on that appropriations subcommittee. This subcommittee had a 13 percent reduced allocation and they had to find places to reduce funds. Everything under their oversight received significant reductions.

“While we understand the difficult Federal fiscal environment, many state budgets are in as bad, or worse, shape. This has forced substantial reductions in the core research, education, and Extension programs at most Land-grant universities.”

On the consequences of heavy cuts…

“Cuts of this magnitude will unfortunately have the exact opposite effect of the desired outcome. What we do in our programs is find solutions for agricultural productivity, nutrition (including obesity), food safety, and environmental problems that are costing so much in taxpayer dollars to correct.

“Ironically, by cutting our core programs there will be an increase in the long-term demand for taxpayer funding to address those important societal issues. We are a big piece of the solution as we address the causes of the food, feed, fiber, and fuel issues facing American and the world.

“Versus funding the results of those problems, the public and Congress must decide which is more important long term and which path will ultimately provide better results while also saving taxpayer funding. I think the answer is pretty clear.”

Would the cuts be targeted towards specific things? Or, is it up to the individual institutions to target the cuts?

“The biggest amount of money that comes directly to land-grants is for ‘capacity’ programs (previously known as ‘formula’ programs). Usually, there are minimal guidelines but, by and large, they’re under the oversight of the respective institutions.

“So, states would have some flexibility were cuts like this to go through.

“For example, there is a dramatic proposed reduction in the Competitive Grants Program. If the cuts hold, there would just be a much smaller pool to compete for.

On two types of funds…

“It’s a bit simplistic to talk about two types of funds that come through this process. But one way to think about this is we have the ‘capacity’ funds that come to us that we must be fully accountable for. The other piece is ‘competitive grants’ that our faculty, staff, scientists work up proposals for and compete for funds.

“The capacity funds include the Hatch Act, McIntire-Steniss, Evans-Allen, Smith-Lever, 1890 Extension – there are six or seven accounts that can be drawn from, depending on the institution. For example, a school like LSU or North Dakota State will get research funds through the Hatch Act. Southern University and Alabama A&M get capacity funds through Evans-Allen, which supports work at 1890 land-grant universities.”

More on proposed cuts…  

“The proposals are concerning.

“But our hope and belief is the Senate – which is currently working on a budget resolution – will provide an allocation process that isn’t nearly as draconian as what went to the various House committees.

“The land-grants are already working very closely with the Senate. The expectation is the Senate Agriculture Appropriations Committee  will end up with a better allocation and be able to fund these various lines at a higher level. If that happens, it would end up in a conference committee process down the road in a few months.”

Has APLU taken a position yet?

“It’s still the early days. But after speaking with (fellow members of the APLU) the message I’m trying to give is there is obviously concern.

“We respect the House and understand the process this committee was forced to go through. It’s kind of like a family with a $100,000 income and suddenly one of the spouses can’t work and their income is cut to $60,000. You have to reallocate.

“But we’ll be working very closely with the Senate to hopefully, one, get a much better allocation of dollars to the committee with oversight and, two, once they get that, they’ll understand the importance of investing in new information and knowledge to drive agriculture forward.”