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How Much More Can You Do With How Much Less?

By   /  June 5, 2017  /  5 Comments

Can we talk, politely, about what it means for the USDA budget to be cut 21%, about what we really need from the Department and the agencies that serve farmers and ranchers? Do you have suggestions for fixes to programs that would make them better for you? The time to figure it out is now, as Congress considers a new budget and Farm Bill.

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For the past few months, On Pasture has been working with two different organizations, both critical to the health and continued operation of On Pasture, and both having trouble providing the assistance we needed. The first was the hosting service for our website. The second was the folks who are supposed to distribute the funds for the grant that covers On Pasture’s operation costs. What both organizations have in common is that they are short-staffed for the jobs they are supposed to be doing. As a result, something that should have taken weeks took months. Another similarity is that neither organization told us short-staffing was the reason for the problem. The difference between them is that one is solving the problem by adding staff and technical capabilities, while the other is looking at an additional 37% cut in staff.

Here’s my motto. Some days I’m better at it than others. But I try.

It’s easy to get frustrated with a service provider when you need help and you just don’t get it. I admit to calling the staff in charge of helping On Pasture migrate to our new servers “naked mole rats” because they worked in a room all by themselves, not communicating with anyone on the tech staff I was talking to. Then one day I spoke with Josh two times in a row. Between our first conversation, when I complained again about the naked mole rates making my life difficult, and the second, Josh had actually met one of these employees. He found out that there was a sudden uptick in migration requests that was way beyond the staff’s capacity to handle it and that they were hiring and training as fast as they could to solve the problem. I realized that they were actually busy beavers trying to stuff sticks in the dam to hold back a flood, and my whole attitude changed. It was easier to be patient, and remember to live by my motto, when I knew what was happening.

As I noted, the second organization is not adding staff, but further reducing. As Agriculture Secretary Perdue said in the media call announcing the proposed USDA budget, the department will respond to cuts in staff and dollars by “doing more with less.” It’s hard for me to understand how that might work after seeing the midnight time stamps of the emails I got from the person trying to help On Pasture, and after learning that the staff he was working on is less than half of what it used to be. I also know that other offices are having difficulties doing everything they need to do because of short staffs. But my picture is admittedly very small.

I certainly don’t have the answers to what is a very complicated topic. But it seems that we should be thinking and sharing ideas about what kind of support we want and need from the USDA and the effects of a 21% cut to an agency that supports the 2% of the population that feeds the other 98%. As a friend told me, this is an agency and these are programs that were born out of the Dust Bowl and our mutual interest in the soil and agriculture. If we can find solutions that work, hopefully we won’t have to learn the lessons of the Dust Bowl again. Can we suggest improvements to programs that need fixes? Can we talk about the kinds of support we need most? Let’s be constructive and share thoughts below. And remember my motto. 🙂

Thanks for reading and for all that you do!

Kathy and Rachel

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  • Published: 2 weeks ago on June 5, 2017
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  • Last Modified: June 5, 2017 @ 10:23 pm
  • Filed Under: The Scoop

About the author

editor and contributor

Kathy worked with the Bureau of Land Management for 12 years before founding Livestock for Landscapes in 2004. Her twelve years at the agency allowed her to pursue her goal of helping communities find ways to live profitably AND sustainably in their environment. She has been researching and working with livestock as a land management tool for over a decade. When she's not helping farmers, ranchers and land managers on-site, she writes articles, and books, and edits videos to help others turn their livestock into landscape managers.

5 Comments

  1. Kathy Zeman says:

    I pulled my farm out of all government programs a year after I bought it, back in 2008 and have never regretted that decision. Being a price setter for all my products is infinitely better than being a price taker and I never have to compromise my principles. Farmers need to wean themselves from ag welfare. A government hand up is okay but an annual government handout weakens the entire ag world. But that will never happen because the food corporations need cheap ingredients to continue to make their profits and U.S. farmers are hooked on the handouts.

    • Kathy Voth says:

      Hi Kathy Z!

      Thanks for your comment. I’m interested in this idea of USDA programs as “handouts” because I hadn’t thought of them that way. When Hugh Hammond Bennett, the founder of the Soil Conservation Service which is now the NRCS, looked at the problems of soil erosion, one of the things he noted was that farmers either didn’t know how to protect the soil, or if they did, lacked some of the resources necessary to protect and improve it. So the agency was founded on the idea that the country as a whole would provide support to farmers and ranchers for conservation and farm and ranch improvements because the soil, and the work and food provided by farmers and ranchers is critical to the country’s survival. I guess I’ve always looked at the technical assistance and the programs that provide partial funding for conservation projects as compensation for the fact that farmers and ranchers are providing really inexpensive and good food while doing great conservation work.

      Back in the Dust Bowl days, the impact of helping farmers and ranchers was quick and very obvious. The Soil Conservation Service was created in 1935, and three years later soil erosion had been reduced by 21%. But that’s something we’re all still working on and now, society has other requests of farmers and ranchers, like habitat protection, and fire prevention, and clean water and air. I figure if people want all that, they need to pay for it, and I see the farm bill and all the other support programs for farmers as that compensation.

      What do you think about that kind of idea?

      Thanks for participating in the conversation!

      Kathy V 🙂

  2. DWK says:

    Several years back I participated in an EQIP program and received a fair amount to remove cedar and mesquite from my Texas Ranch. Even though it was substantial paper work, I feel it was well worth it considering the amount of grass I now have.

    That said, I am in favor of reducing the budget. If the USDA would put on programs promoting and teaching the benefits of improving your ranch and the return on your investment in the long run, most ranches would do it. Many of these programs were not written to be a never ending handouts. Like drugs we are hooked on them.

    The program for paying ranchers for not planting wheat is another program that should get the ax. I know ranchers that have gotten a check for many years that haven’t planted wheat and never will.

  3. Denny Oelschlager says:

    Kathy —

    RE – How much more can we do with how much less

    Thank you for invitation to share thoughts

    recently spent over an hour doing paperwork in local USDA field office for a multi year agreement that only involves a few hundred dollars total over several years – just the beginning of years of paperwork

    USDA offices are over occupied with paperwork – and program staff – and requirements – that add a huge percentage to the cost of the programs they administer – especially the small agreements ($$ and acres) that are very common.

    from my experience at least 21% cut should definitely occur – and the programs steam lined and simplified, and accordingly

    reference to need for programs ‘coming out of the dust bowl’ – like planting brome and cedar trees – and suppressing necessary use of fire – draining wetlands – to mention a couple obvious examples — does little to convince me that most of massive ag bureaucracy is needed.

    I could go on and on with examples.

    Thank You for the reference to landscape management — has very little to do with the way the USDA programs I deal with are managed. Tiny fields are must meet program requirements with almost total disregard for the landscape.

    All-for-do-more-with-less

    • Kathy Voth says:

      Hi Denny,

      Thanks for your comments. I think that everyone, including the USDA staff would say that paperwork is a huge problem and no one wants to do it. That said, I can see that you are using some sort of service provided by the USDA. My question for all of us is what are those services that we need and want? What makes a farmer’s/rancher’s life better and can we focus on funding that? I’m just thinking that if there are things we like, we need to express those so that when cuts do occur, we don’t lose what we want to keep. I’m betting there are folks out there who have experience with paperwork too and potential solutions for making things better. I’d like to help On Pasture readers share those solutions and needs with the folks who could make a difference so everyone’s lives are better. Just my thoughts.

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