Our Federal Government spends so much money on so many things, it is difficult to put any of it in perspective. (If you did not see my post on “One Trillion Dollars – How big is that?” take a look to see how big our deficit for just last year is.) In a later post, we will talk about just what (few) things the Federal government should do and compare that with what is the current situation. For the sake of this post, lets limit the discussion to Agriculture. Forewarning: I have a dog in the fight, though be it a very small dog – my wife and I grow wine grapes and olives for olive oil.
Some may argue that one key government need is to support our huge agricultural base. I would probably argue against such a government program, but, that too is a different matter. Let’s talk about the U.S. Department of Agriculture. That doesn’t make sense, does it? I say I would probably argue against a government program to support agriculture but that is a different topic than the Department of Agriculture? Yep. The Department of Agriculture is barely about Agriculture at all.
According to the USDA Budget Summary (located here), our Department of Agriculture will spend $149 Billion in 2011. That is a lot of money. It is almost exactly 1% of our Gross Domestic Product. That means that 100 such government programs would spend our entire GDP. So what Agriculture programs will get all that money? Is it crop subsidies? How about crop loan guarantees? Or college and university subsidies to study crops, pests, etc.? There is some of all that going on within the Department of Agriculture, but not much.
70% of all funds spent by the USDA go to Nutrition programs, food stamps and the like. Those are, for the most part, social programs, not agriculture programs. Forestry and conservation programs get about 1/10th of that amount or 7% of the budget. A strong argument can be made that both forestry and conservation (mostly soil and water conservation) are agriculture. All farm and commodity programs amount to only 17% of the budget. That leaves 6% for everything else. Trust me. Much of that is as much to do with agriculture as food stamps (often used to offset the cost of cigarettes and lottery tickets), but I digress.
So what should Congress do about Agriculture? I don’t know. I hope you do. I know that I don’t want to see over $100 Billion spent on nutrition programs (more than $350 per man, woman and child in our country). If the government should be involved in nutrition, it should be part of health care, not Agriculture. And, I am not convinced that either is a mandated government function. I will, however, assume that short of economic collapse, our Congress will not ever cut more than a significant portion of the budget. Hoping that they will do this, I would be a supporter of a politician who plans to reduce the size of the Department of Agriculture by at least 25% with the vast majority of the savings coming from Nutrition programs.
Not far behind, in my opinion, should be big cuts in Crop Subsidies. Each year the USDA hands out over $10 Billion in crop subsidies. The top 10% of those who receive subsidies get over 65% of the money. That means, that for the most part, the USDA is subsidizing the big corporate farmers who have better access to funds than the family farmer. My guess is that, if there is a need to subsidize crops, those who need the subsidies are the smaller and family farmers, not corporate agriculture. It is an interesting fact that in 2005, 8 of the top 20 to receive crop subsidies were in Mississippi. The subsidies of those eight ‘farmers’ averaged well over $4,000,000 each that year. You can bet that farms that get over $4 Million a year in subsidies are NOT small family farms. Oh, and guess who was the Chairman of the Agriculture, Nutrition, and Forestry Committee in the Senate in 2005? If you guessed Thad Cochran (Republican, Mississippi), then you win the $64. I don’t know if there is a connection, but if there isn’t, we surely have a marvelous coincidence. Oh, yes. He was also the ranking member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. My, oh my. Another coincidence.
It is just a piddling amount of money, but I also find offensive the current Administration’s $400 million “Healthy Food Financing Initiative” intended to bring grocery stores and other healthy food retailers to underserved communities. Now I’m just not sure, but I doubt that the Framers of our Constitution were thinking about the Federal Government as having a role in bringing healthy food retailers to underserved communities.
Also of interest should be the growth in the USDA budget between the 2008 budget and the 2011 budget. In 2008, the USDA budget authority was $93 Billion. In 2011, the Budget Authority is for $149 Billion. Draw your own conclusions.
I could go on for pages, but you get the idea. Vote for a candidate who has the USDA in his or her crosshairs and you will help stop spending on some of the biggest barrels of pork in our government.