(Feb. 5) The budget ax has fallen hard on the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

The USDA faces cuts in its discretionary spending budget for 2005 under a lean budget proposed by President Bush in early February, and conservation programs may suffer the most.

Discretionary budget authority declined 8% from $20.7 billion in fiscal 2004 to $19 billion for 2005.

The White House said the budget will keep spending growth for departments other than Defense and Homeland Security to less than 1% and keep the country on course to cut the deficit in half within five years.

The USDA is not alone.

Seven of 16 Cabinet-level departments would see their budgets reduced under the Bush budget, according to a Feb. 2 Washington Post analysis. The document would kill 65 government programs and cut spending in 63 more.

THE SPECIFICS

Funding for the Market Access Program, used to fund export promotion of many fruit and vegetable commodities, will remain at $125 million, said Ron Gaskill, director of regulatory relations for the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Washington office.

“The 2002 farm bill would have (MAP funding) to go up to $140 million in 2005. We would like to see it funded at that level, but at least it is not a step back,” he said.

In addition, he said the Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops, a fund designed to help break down technical trade barriers, is funded at $2 million, unchanged from the 2004 budget.

Considering that the USDA was hit the hardest of all large agencies, staying even with last year’s funding is a positive.

However, he noted that conservation programs, including the Environmental Quality Incentive Program and the Conservation Security Program, will be cut.

Fruit and vegetable growers were looking forward to benefiting from some money from those programs in exchange for conservation practices, but that is in doubt now, he said.

On the other hand, full funding is expected for child nutrition programs.

Gaskill said the Bush budget and the final budget Congress passes later in the year will see considerable changes.

“One thing is clear: New programs are few and far between,” he said.

OCTOBER TARGET

The president’s budget sets the fiscal tone for Capitol Hill as lawmakers on the budget and appropriations committee assign money to programs in the next few months. Federal guidelines call for all work on the federal budget to be finished by October, but lawmakers frequently fail to meet that deadline.

John Keeling, executive vice president and chief executive officer of the National Potato Council, Washington, D.C., said the Bush budget sets the benchmark for discussions with Capitol Hill.

“It’s better to be in there, but if you are not, you can work with the budget and appropriations committees,” he said.

George Chartier, spokesman for the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, said analysts and economists in the AMS and in the Agriculture Secretary Ann Veneman’s office are reviewing the document and have no immediate comment on what changes in programs, if any, are anticipated because of the budget proposal.

Bush’s budget also includes $568 million, a 190% increase, to improve food and agriculture security by increasing detection capabilities and developing counter-measures against potential attacks.