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Merrigan warns that budget cut expectations are high

By JERRY HAGSTROM

Expectations of budget cuts to get the debt ceiling lifted are very high, Agriculture Deputy Secretary Kathleen Merrigan said today, emphasizing that groups worried about the future of federal nutrition programs will have to defend them and make them as efficient as possible.

"The magnitude of cuts people expect around the lifting of the debt ceiling are very, very significant," said Merrigan, who has been handling USDA's budget negotiations with the White House Office of Management and Budget. She declined, however, to say whether she was involved in any specific budget negotiations over agriculture in relationship to an agreement to lift the debt ceiling.

"We get a lot of requests from Congress and the White House," Merrigan told The Hagstrom Report.

Merrigan spoke today to a meeting of Wholesome Wave, a nonprofit group dedicated to creating nationwide programs that support small-and medium-scale farmers and making locally grown fruits and vegetables available to everyone, regardless of income. Wholesome Wave has pioneered a program that gives food stamp beneficiaries vouchers to make purchases at farmers' markets.

Asked by one of the attendees whether she is worried that the growing market for animal feed in China will mean it will be harder to increase fruit and vegetable production in the United States, Merrigan said she is not in a "panic" mode over competition for land for various types of agricultural production.

She noted that a program she initiated using the USDA Environmental Quality Incentives Program to pay half the cost of hoop houses so that Midwestern farmers could grow vegetables in the winter has been very popular. She also noted that the latest U.S. dietary guidelines for Americans indicate that a plate of food should be half fruits and vegetables.

Merrigan also pointed to the continuing debate over whether crops should be used for fuel versus food for people and animals. She noted that on her college tours to talk about USDA's "Know Your Farmer, Know Your Food" program, she finds that many students do not realize that most corn grown in the United States is for animal feed rather than for direct human consumption.

But she said that debates over food versus fuel and fruits and vegetables versus commodities pale in comparison with the budget issue, which is "an even bigger 20,000-foot debate." Of the 2012 farm bill, she noted that Congress cut $2.5 billion of the USDA budget for the remainder of fiscal year 2011 and said, "Everyone is perplexed with the budget. We are trying to feel our way through."

With 74 percent of the USDA budget going to food stamps, school meals and the special nutrition program for women, infants and children known as WIC, "We are going to be continuously under the gun" to show that those funds are well spent, Merrigan said.

She urged the state and local nutrition officials and community activists attending the conference to tell USDA of "any efficiencies we can find in those programs."