Significant cuts are coming to farm programs when the next farm bill becomes law, probably in 2012.

“All signs point to less of a safety net. I can’t put a positive spin on what’s happening in Washington,” said Joe Outlaw, professor and Texas AgriLife Extension economist. “Congress can’t take less money and make everyone better off.”

How deep could the cuts go? Depends on whose numbers get the most attention, but proposed cuts by either the National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform or the Bipartisan Policy Center indicate severe reductions, Outlaw said.

The former would eliminate $1 billion out of a $6 billion total. The latter would take $3 billion, half the current budget.

“The 2002 farm bill had $11 billion in the commodity programs,” Outlaw said during the Texas Plant Protection Association annual conference in College Station. “In 2008, we got $6 billion.” Funding for crop insurance doubled and nutrition program funds more than doubled.

Outlaw said 38 programs in the 2008 farm bill do not have baselines to carry them forward. He said one possibility congress might consider is redirecting funds to “those at risk. For sorghum, cotton, rice and wheat, direct payments are going to landowners. The safety net is not going to farmers.”

Those funds could be redirected to producers. “But direct payments will be a main target,” Outlaw said.

Agricultural commodity groups will need to prioritize issues. “Each group will want a fair share.

“We see a lot of uncertainty. All people in Washington want to talk about are the budget and the deficit. They are looking for places to cut, and agriculture will take a hit. I expect to see more money spent on crop insurance than on commodity programs.”

Nutrition programs will claim 75 percent of the agriculture budget.

Outlaw said uncertainty also hangs over the ag committees. Frank Lucas, R-Okla., will be the new chair of the House Agriculture Committee and has been a strong supporter of agriculture. Less known will be the Senate chairman, Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., who will replace Blanche Lincoln. “She (Stabenow) is an unknown entity,” Outlaw said. “Losing Lincoln was a big hit. She knew southern crops.”

He said the Brazil cotton case also will weigh on farm bill debates as legislators contemplate the $147 million a year paid to “Brazilian farmers to make them better. That will not sit well in Washington. And the rest of the world will look at cotton in the next farm bill.”

Outlaw expects debate to begin in 2012. He said Collin Peterson would have begun the process in 2011, but Lucas prefers to “stick with the current program. They can’t do much with the farm bill until they know how much of a cut agriculture will take.”

rsmith@farmpress.com