As hearings and discussions resume on crafting the 2012 farm bill, the threat of $30 billion to $35 billion being chopped out of agricultural programs hangs over the negotiations, says Carlisle Clarke, legislative assistant to Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., vice chairman of the Appropriations Committee and a member of the Agriculture Committee.

“Last fall, in the debt ceiling discussions, each congressional committee was charged with offering up a package of cuts for programs under their jurisdiction,” he said at the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation’s annual commodity conference.

“The leadership of the House and Senate agriculture committees agreed on $23 billion in cuts. Sen. Cochran and other committee members didn’t get to offer as much input as they would have liked, and we more or less condensed a normal farm bill process into about six weeks to get these recommendations done.

“The Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction ultimately didn’t ultimately pass anything, but we still ended up with that $23 billion in proposed cuts hanging over our heads for the 2012 farm bill.”

Part of the agreement last August, Clarke says, required that if the committee didn’t achieve the targeted budget cuts that would then be passed by Congress, budget sequestration would occur in January 2013.

“This means we’d essentially have automatic cuts determined by the Office of Management and Budget, with no input whatever by congressional leaders. That could mean $30 billion to $35 billion could be taken out of agriculture.

“They had already said food stamps would not be included in those cuts, so that $30-$35 billion would have to come from ag programs. And the agriculture spending baseline will be updated in March, which would make commodity spending even smaller than actually proposed.

‘To put this in perspective, over the next 10 years the food stamp program is projected to cost upward of $800 billion; under current policy, commodity programs would cost only about $71 billion during the same period.”

Anytime there is comprehensive legislation like the farm bill that costs upward of $1 trillion every 10 years, Clarke says, “We’re going to hear a lot of reservations from the deficit hawks on one end and from the outright opponents on the other end who don’t believe this nation should be investing in farm programs at all.

“It frankly baffles me that there is a disconnect on Capitol Hill between farmers who actually produce food and the persons who consume the food. For whatever reason, people don’t seem to make the connection that investing in farm programs is an investment in food security and global food supply. Our job is to sell that message as we enter into the farm bill discussions.”

The current farm program expires at the end of September, Clarke notes, and if no new farm bill is passed or the current bill isn’t extended, “we would revert to the common statutes of 1949  — and I don’t think anyone would realistically consider that an option.”