Federal budget cuts brought about by alternative spending cuts are likely to hit farmers and rural communities across the country, warned U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a telephone interview last week.
Vilsack ticked off some of what might lie ahead. “From the producers’ perspective, there’ll be a reduction in credit available to farmers. That means $34 million less loan money available. That means 1,500 farmers won’t get loans to continue or start an operation,” he said.
Conservation programs will also be hit, an impact that could be felt by as many as 13,000 farmers, who won’t get advice or financial help on programs designed to ease erosion and improve water quality.
“Our agricultural exports will be impacted,” said Vilsack, noting that promotional funds to boost U.S. exports in foreign countries will be reduced. “We could lose as much as half a billion dollars in exports,” he said.
Vilsack also touched on one of the most publicized impacts of sequestration on agriculture: the cutback in funds for federal inspectors. “That means an 11-day furlough for food safety workers. That means for 11 full days those (meat packing) plants can’t produce,” he said.
“We’ll try to space those days out, starting in July and ending in August or September,” said Vilsack, suggesting that the cuts will have wider implications than a loss of wages for federal workers that haven’t had a pay increase for three years.
“(Furlough days) will also impact plant workers and our food supply. It will also affect producers who might not be able to get the premium they were used to getting,” he said.
Rural communities will also feel the pinch, said Vilsack. “There will be less rental assistance, for example. As many as 15,000 people will not get the financial help they’ve had in the past,” he said.
As if the problem wasn’t bad enough, it could get worse, said the former Iowa governor. “The Senate is considering a continuing resolution that could add a 2.5 percent cut to the USDA budget. That would mean additional furlough days for USDA employees,” he said.
What frustrates Vilsack is that, in the face of these cuts, he doesn’t have the ability to prioritize or “move things around” due to sequestration rules. “Statutorily, I have no capacity to adjust things. Food inspection is no more or less important than other operations,” he said.
“I have senators writing me letters to solve the problem but they offer no money or the flexibility to do so,” said Vilsack.