Farm bill cuts likely to bring pain to more than Connecticut’s farmers

Mention of the farm bill generally conjures visions of big payouts to Midwestern corn and wheat growers with little relevance to the small farmers or just about anyone else in Connecticut.

True those subsidies don’t mean much here, but there is plenty in the legislation that does. It is packed with provisions from dairy supports and farmers market grants to food stamps and farmland protection, not to mention assistance with solving runoff problems on farms, renewable energy and municipal sewers.

Yup — sewers. Just ask Bolton town administrator Joyce Stille. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development office provided most of the $21 million the Bolton Lakes Regional Water Pollution Control Authority needed for a sewer system the state ordered them to install. There was not a farm in sight.

“Rural Development was key to us being able to move forward,” Stille said. “No question whatsoever.”

The folks at Rural Development, the people they help and many others around the state — definitely not just farmers — are sporting white knuckles as they await word on winners and losers in the quickly scrambled new version of the farm bill that now faces an uncertain future with the so-called supercommittee. The word about what will be chopped to achieve $23 billion in savings over five years as part of the $1.2 trillion the committee is trying to trim is that the state is likely to face some serious cuts in popular programs — along with a few pleasant surprises.

“It’s a balancing act like anything else; how do we get our deficit down,” said Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, a member of the agriculture committee — Connecticut’s first in 100 years — though with the negotiations done largely in secret by committee leadership, not always in a position to push for his state’s priorities. “Nobody likes this.” But he added: “$23 billion is not a major game-changer.”

Maybe not in the context of total cuts, but it can be a game-changer for those counting on aid from any of the myriad programs that sit within the farm bill’s purview.

“In this environment and being from a small state and the Northeast in general, we’ve finally gotten ourselves to a place where we’re getting an increased share in growing agriculture here,” said state Agriculture Commissioner Steven Reviczky, who like others stressed the importance of food security in a state that generally cannot provide enough food to sustain itself for very long. “I fear going backwards.”

Among the few things to cheer about, funding to promote farmers’ markets increased from $33 million over five years to $100 million. And Rural Development may breathe a touch easier with level-funding for their tiny percentage of the overall package to keep providing loan guarantees, loans and grants for water and wastewater, business, housing and community facilities projects in dozens of towns around the state that fall under various population caps to be classified as rural.

“Our marching orders are to try to help with both the environmental soundness and economic viability of rural America,” said Jay Healy state director for Connecticut, Massachusetts and Rhode Island, whose office spent nearly $118 million in Connecticut during the last fiscal year. With120 employees in the mid 1980s, the office is now just over 60 and appropriations cuts could bring that down to 50.

“We’re waiting on pins and needles as to exactly, in maple syrup terms, how it’s going to sugar off,” he said. “My fear on some of this is that we maybe can’t do the job we need to do with customers.”

But for conservation programs — normally about 8.5 percent of the farm bill and which are widely used here — the news is that programs will face a $6 billion cut, the second largest in the farm bill, though a regional equity component to compensate for higher expenses here will stay. One billion of the cut will be in the wildly popular 15-year-old Environmental Quality Incentives Program — EQIP (pronounced EE-kwip), which operates through the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, providing technical and financial aid for all sorts of conservation improvements for agricultural producers.

EQIP qualified Jonathan Eddy of New Boston Beef in Thompson for 90 percent new farmer coverage (most payments are 75 percent) to build a new barn to house his cattle in winter, allowing them to thrive in cold weather. He installed gutters and manure covers to keep contaminated runoff from going into the nearby Quinebaug River. And it helped him put up fencing to better rotate his herd, keeping pasture land healthier.

He went from processing about 25 cows a year to 40. “Once I had that part (the expansion), I wasn’t afraid to jump into farmers markets.”

A recently approved horse manure management project and the $5 million farmland restoration component of special jobs legislation passed last month had been counting on EQIP dollars — which were doled out to the tune of $5.4 million in Connecticut in fiscal 2011 – for funding.

Also in the crosshairs of conservation cutbacks is the Farm and Ranch Lands Protection Program. It provides up to 50 percent to purchase development rights to keep farmland in production. The NRCS in Connecticut estimates it helps save 2,000 acres a year, spending $6.2 million in fiscal year 2011.

“What I worry about is that in this critical moment we’ll lose that little bit of help that is really making a difference, said Jim Gooch, Connecticut Farmland Trust executive director, explaining that federal backing is the magnet for state, municipal and nonprofit funding for such projects. “It’s a tough time to lose any of that support.”

The Wildlife Habitat Incentive Program, or WHIP, which helps private landowners — not necessarily farmers — manage wildlife, right down to invasive plant control, could find some of its functions cut and/or combined with EQIP. And the EQIP Organic Initiative, a relatively new program that is popular with the increasing number of organic farmers in the state, could find its efforts to pay for things like drip irrigation — this uses less water or insulation to make greenhouse more efficient — hampered.

“It will either be rent or it will be salaries in order to keep those planners out in the field,” said State Conservationist Jay Mar, already braced for a 20 percent cut, though now it looks more like 25 percent. He and others are concerned that the technical planning aspects of the program will be compromised in exchange for more dollars for farmers. He vowed to maintain boots on the ground.

The biggest cut — $12 billion to $15 billion — in the farm bill is in the much-maligned commodities program. While Connecticut farmers may ultimately feel a bit of that in terms of how much they pay for feed corn, the real stake here is for the vast majority of the state’s nearly 150 dairies that wholesale their milk. They are subject to the price the government sets.

Farmers have long complained that the cost of production here is much higher than in other parts of the country, leaving them lucky to break even. The bill changes the system to a two-tiered one based on production and should increase subsidies and protect profit margins, but only if farmers participate in a voluntary supply management program that keeps the market from being flooded.

“Supply management is an important component of this. In my mind it does not make sense to have it voluntary,” said Peter Orr of Fort Hill Farms in Thompson, a member of the Farmer’s Cow Cooperative, echoing widespread sentiment. “What I would hope is that the reform that is finally adopted is fair to dairy farmers of the Northeast.”

Unknown to many people is that more than two-thirds of the farm bill funding covers nutrition, mainly SNAP, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, which used to be called food stamps. Nutrition comes in for about a 4 percent cut in the legislation sent to the supercommittee, and that pain may be felt most acutely in Connecticut and about a dozen others states that provide a small amount of money under the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program, LIHEAP, to households that would not otherwise receive it, so they can qualify for SNAP increases.

Connecticut gives the threshold $1, but in the new farm bill, the threshold rises to $15, potentially denying SNAP increases to about 80,000 of the state’s 205,000 recipients.

Ironically, if the supercommittee fails to come up with an agreement, forcing automatic cuts, SNAP becomes exempt. “The notion that sequestration is a safe haven is a false assumption,” cautioned Courtney noting that the SNAP reductions wouldn’t start until 2013, giving Republicans plenty of time to try to enact the drastic SNAP cuts many prefer.

But he and others, including Henry Talmage, executive director of the Connecticut Farm Bureau, a nonprofit advocacy group, agreed that despite the impending pain, politicians are starting to “get it” when it comes to how food and farming policy is shifting. “There is a recognition that agriculture in general, especially in the Northeast states, has the potential to really engage and embrace people more in line with where food is coming from,” Talmage said. “To that extent, there’s a lot of work being done.”