Roger Johnson: Balancing Budget on Backs of Farmers Brings More Pain

May 31, 2011

Amid the long list of federal projects costing taxpayers far more than predicted, one policy stands alone by coming in billions of dollars under budget.

From 2007 to 2011, this policy trimmed taxpayer spending 31 percent when compared with the same four-year period a decade earlier. It even found room to contribute to deficit reduction in recent years at a time when others searched for additional funds.

I’m talking about the farm safety net, and if you’re surprised, it’s understandable.

To read most urban newspapers or listen to elitist think tanks, you’re left with the impression that farm budgets are bloated and that farm policy is a financial sinkhole for the country. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Farm policy represents just one-quarter of one percent of federal spending, yet it inevitably finds itself in the cross hairs of budget hawks long before more deserving targets do.

Instead of tearing holes in the farm safety net, lawmakers should celebrate farm policy for its fiscal sensibilities and for working just as it was designed. The bulk of the safety net only kicks in when most needed — when crop prices are in a free fall or Mother Nature strikes.

Crop insurance — which is the most important component of the farm safety net for specialty crop producers and growers of most major crops — was specifically created to ensure that private insurance companies, not taxpayers, shoulder the burden of funding payouts following crises.

Last year, for example, every federal dollar spent to encourage crop insurance coverage was parlayed into $20 of privately backed protection. That’s a huge return on taxpayer investment, and it was needed.

One need look no further than the tornados in the South and Midwest, the flooding in the Midwest and Mississippi Valley, the Florida freeze or the dry conditions affecting this year’s hard red winter wheat crop in the Southern Plains to understand the importance of crop insurance.

It keeps scores of farmers from going bankrupt each year and thus keeps us fed. It is essential for farmers to secure operating loans. And in light of the value of this year’s crops — the most valuable in U.S. history — it protects the country’s food, fiber and fuel supply without mortgaging taxpayers to the hilt.

Despite it all, crop insurance has taken a disproportionate share of funding reductions in recent years — more than $12 billion in the past two years — and has again been targeted in the House of Representatives’ proposed budget package.

Here’s a news flash for non-farm-state lawmakers: You cannot balance the budget on the backs of farmers. Trying to do so will only expose taxpayers to more pain in the long run.

Following the 1996 farm bill, the last time huge holes were cut in the farm safety net, years of poor prices and weather disasters led to numerous ad hoc disaster bills. The funding of such measures was unsustainable, so Congress wisely designed the modern-day crop insurance infrastructure and passed a 2002 farm bill to operate more efficiently.

And the strategy worked, at least until some lawmakers started demanding draconian cuts that could put agriculture back in the same position it was in back in 1996.

In a January letter to the New York Times, former House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest, R-Texas, a lead architect of the 2002 farm bill, shared this observation: “Against all the misrepresentations about farm policy, I have some sobering news: If the bottom falls out on agriculture, existing farm policy is already too weakened to prevent a crisis.”

Considering all that’s at stake — from three square meals a day to the 21 million U.S. jobs rooted in agriculture — those words should serve as a wake-up call to us all.

About the author:  Roger Johnson is the former agriculture commissioner from North Dakota. He currently serves as president of the National Farmers Union.

This article first appeared in the Omaha World-Herald on May 31, 2011.