Ag Today April 11, 2017

California farmers in the crosshairs

BY MATTHEW KRAMER POSTED 04.10.2017

California’s farmers are getting nervous — understandably.

The Trump administration wants to slash the budget of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, cutting one out of every five dollars of the department’s discretionary spending.

“The fact that government-wide he picks on government agriculture to cut (21) percent of funding is an item of concern, especially when it would impact research dollars.” — Josh Rolph, California Farm Bureau Federation.

Experts say this cut, although its ultimate fate remains uncertain, would mean a loss of $4.7 billion to the department itself. In California, which at $48 billion has the largest farm economy in the nation, farmers are concerned that the deep reduction will hurt the Golden State’s farm belt — ironically, areas where Donald Trump received political support during last year’s election.

There is a fear that research funding will be lost.

“The fact that government-wide he picks on government agriculture to cut (21) percent of funding is an item of concern, especially when it would impact research dollars,” said Josh Rolph, manager of the Federal Policy Division of the California Farm Bureau.

“That was probably the biggest surprise for me personally… (research is) an area that tends to be something where the private sector doesn’t really have a mechanism to invest in,” he added.

Rolph said the budget may not pass congressional muster. But he remains concerned bout Trump’s policy direction.

“That’s something (research)where having that federal assistance is really crucial – looking forward, improving the technology, the farming practices, the research on pests and disease and finding solutions to these age old problems is really crucial. That’s an area where we’re pushing back. That kind of stands out.”

Rolph isn’t alone in his estimation of the president’s approach as unrealistic.

Matthew Flemming, aide to state Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Modesto, said he is skeptical the final budget will resemble Trump’s initial proposal in its final form. Flemming added that Berryhill, whose 8th Senate District is strongly agricultural, is tracking the issue.

“We’ll be working closely with Congress to make sure that funding priorities for California remain in tact,” he said.

Steve Lyle, a spokesperson for the state Agriculture Department, declined to comment.

Although there is uncertainty about the final shape of the budget, some believe the timing of the proposed USDA cuts couldn’t be worse.

Farm incomes are down 50 percent from four years ago, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway told Reuters, and losing billions of dollars in discretionary funding could exacerbate the problem.

California grows two thirds of the nation’s fruits and nuts, and over a third of the country’s vegetables.  In 2015 alone, California exported about 26 percent of its agricultural production by volume, and dairy production in the state topped $6 billion, according to state data.

Adding to the uncertainty is the still-pending Senate confirmation of Trump’s nominee for Agriculture Secretary, former George Gov. Sonny Perdue. He is likely to be confirmed after the Easter recess, but it is not yet known how he will cooperate with the administration’s proposed cuts.