Last week the Bush administration confirmed that as part of the upcoming federal budget, it wants to make big cuts in the financial assistance it gives to the nationâ€™s farmers and ranchers.
Thatâ€™s bad news for the 10 percent of the nationâ€™s farmers who collect more than 72 percent of all farm subsidies. And it could be bad news for the ag industry in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties as well.
The vast majority of Central Coast farmers and ranchers who receive government subsidies use them for two reasons: conservation (ecological improvements to land) and disaster (losses from droughts or inclement weather).
But a fair number also get commodity subsidies â€” the kind of financial assistance that might be under the ax. Between 1995 and 2003 â€” the only years data is available â€” 320 SLO ranchers got $1.4 million to raise cattle. And 241 county farmers got $10.3 million to grow barley and wheat.
In Santa Barbara County, more than 100 ranchers and farmers got about $1 million in similar subsidies during the same time period.
From his office in Washington, D.C., John Johnson, the deputy administrator of the federal Farm Services Agency, explained how Bushâ€™s budget could affect what the local ag industry gets: First, the maximum commodity payment amount would be reduced from $360,000 to $250,000. Second, all other payments â€” the ones that didnâ€™t hit the maximum amount â€” would be reduced 5 percent. Lastly, loopholes that allow people to legally get more than the maximum amount would be closed.
â€œOur president feels that adjusting payments by 5 percent is reasonable given the issues our country faces and the budget deficit,â€? Johnson said.
So what does 5 percent mean to the Central Coast, where payments rarely hit the max amount? In SLO County in 2003, the median average amount farmers and ranchers got was $10,800. Five percent means a $540 cut.
Is that something the local ag industry can afford?
Jennifer Anderson, the executive director for the local Farm Services Agency office, cheerfully described how the subsidy process works but had been told by her superiors not to comment on the national budget. Jackie Crabb, executive director of the San Luis Obispo County Farm Bureau, didnâ€™t know exactly what might be cut but hoped it wouldnâ€™t impact the countyâ€™s economy: â€œIf it hurts the farming community, we donâ€™t like it,â€? she said.
And Victor Tognazzini, general manager at Santa Mariaâ€™s Tri-Valley Vegetable Harvesting and a board member for his countyâ€™s farm bureau, is supportive of â€œcinching down that budget,â€? as he put it. But he said that cutting subsidies could hurt the local ag industry in more ways than one.
While local farmers donâ€™t grow much of the crops that get federal aid, they do grow a lot of specialty crops: strawberries, grapes, broccoli, cabbage. If Midwestern growers stop getting subsidies for their crops, Tognazzini said, then they might switch over to what Central Coast farmers grow.
â€œWe may end up being in trouble because then we have too many specialty crops,â€? he said. â€œMost of us donâ€™t like the idea of subsidies. Except that [cutting] subsidies may hurt us.â€?
In the coming weeks, the Bush administrationâ€™s budget will be sent to Congress. A finalized version is due sometime in the spring.
Staff Writer Abraham Hyatt can be reached at email@example.com.