The U.S. Department of Agriculture conceals data that could be used to guide agricultural policy and budget decisions, like the new 2021 fiscal year budget proposed earlier this week by President Donald Trump’s administration, Rep. Sanford Bishop, D-Ga., said Tuesday at a House Appropriations Committee hearing.
Bishop also expressed concern that there is a “lack of reliance on facts,” and that decisions in the USDA are made based on politics instead of facts.
Gil Harden, assistant inspector general for audits in the USDA, testified the organization’s audit department has not found any examples of decisions being made based on politics instead of facts, and the USDA only makes recommendations that would increase spending on effective programs.
Yet many members of Congress on the committee were skeptical of the USDA’s concealment of data on conservation studies and inability to give concrete numbers of how many taxpayer dollars were saved as a result of program budget changes.
This is problematic for Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., who noted that conservation programs in the USDA lost significant amounts of funding.
However, Harden testified that the Natural Resources Conservation Service in the USDA reviewed the audit department’s suggestions and agreed that their spending plan was outdated and ineffective in accomplishing their goals. The Natural Resources Conservation Service is now working on a plan for more appropriate funding.
“We don’t question the conservation issues themselves,” Harden said.
The Trump administration proposed cuts worth billions of dollars to crop insurance, disaster assistance and conservation spending in the U.S. government 2021 fiscal year budget proposal, which was released Monday.
If the budget is approved as is, the White House will cut crop insurance for farmers by almost $25 billion and conservation programs by more than $9 billion.
The administration also plans to eliminate assistance for livestock producers in drought-stricken areas like Southwest Colorado.
Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wis., said at the hearing that many dairy farmers are “ready to pass on farms to the third generation, but have to sell their farms because they can’t get by.”
National Association of Wheat Growers President Ben Scholz said in a statement that the budget “proposes drastic cuts to some key programs for wheat farmers.”
“The president’s budget proposal would also scale back key safety net and conservation programs, which many growers rely on to better incorporate sustainable and healthy soil practices,” Scholz said.
Scholz did acknowledge the Trump administration for fully funding the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development programs, which have been “critical to the export success for American wheat by helping to create access to new markets.”
Taylor Szilagyi, director of policy communications at the Colorado Farm Bureau, said the significant decrease for aid programs “makes everybody a little nervous” from what they know so far about the proposed budget.
The 2021 budget proposal doesn’t look too different from the 2019 budget proposal, and those cuts never went through, Szilagyi told The Journal.
But Colorado farmers have been “hit by one thing after another,” including instability in trade and severe droughts, Szilagyi said.
Commodity prices remain low, and cuts to crop insurance make it difficult for farmers to stay in business. Low commodity prices affect their bottom line, and farmers are just getting by instead of having the ability to invest in the future, Szilagyi said.
Bishop also stressed in the hearing the need for the USDA to improve outreach efforts to farmers and ranchers who qualify for benefit programs but may not know they exist, especially for tribal nations.
But Szilagyi said, “If you are a producer, you are probably using one of these programs.”
“Having a USDA that is able to provide these programs to farmers and ranchers is important, especially with the market being the way it is,” Szilagyi said.
Emily Hayes is a graduate student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Journal and The Durango Herald.