Farmers watch to gauge impact of sequestration
By Christine Souza
With U.S. Congress and the Obama administration unable to prevent the March 1 trigger of automatic spending cuts to the federal budget, known as sequestration, agency officials must now decide where the cuts should be made, the effects of which aren't likely to become apparent until the end of the month.
If the cuts laid out by the Obama administration take effect, the U.S. Department of Agriculture would furlough Food Safety and Inspection Service meat and poultry inspectors for approximately two weeks as a result of the sequester. This, and potential cuts to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, are being monitored carefully by California farmers and ranchers in Imperial County, a key agricultural county along the California-Mexico border. Imperial County Farm Bureau Executive Director Linsey Dale said furloughing USDA meat inspectors would be troubling for the local beef sector.
"Cattle is our No. 1 industry here," Dale said. "We have a meat processing plant in Imperial County that employs hundreds of people so that will impact not only us, but the consumer too."
Paul Cameron, manager of Mesquite Cattle Feeders, which is a supplier to Brawley Beef, a leading beef processor and a branch of National Beef Packing Co., said he believes furloughing USDA meat inspectors would be devastating to the local cattle sector and the economy.
"The furlough would induce a backup of cattle in all of the feed yards that supply to the plant here in the Imperial Valley, and if we delay shipment and we have to add two weeks' additional feed to those cattle, this increases the cost to gain, not to mention the fact that a lot of yards are full," said Cameron, whose company ships cattle daily to National Beef. "We count on turning cattle over so we can empty pens and bring new cattle in that we have delivery contracts for."
A furlough of USDA meat inspectors would result in a shutdown of the beef packing plant, Cameron said, which means temporary work stoppage for about 2,300 employees.
"Imperial County is one of the highest unemployment counties in the country. Historically, we are above 20 percent unemployment and to take 2,300 people that are working and put them on the street for two weeks would be devastating," Cameron said.
In a report released by the Obama administration about sequester impacts, it indicated that it would lead to reduced staffing levels at the border that could lead to slow screening and entry for people traveling into the U.S.; delays in sea container examinations and fewer food safety inspections by the Food and Drug Administration.
The report also cited that cuts to U.S. Customs and Border Protection means that the agency would not be able to maintain current staffing levels of border patrol agents and would have to reduce work hours by the equivalent of over 5,000 border patrol agents and the equivalent of over 2,750 border patrol officers. As a result, at the California-Mexico border, wait times could reach five hours or more during peak holiday weekends and travel periods, and at seaports, delays in container examinations could increase, impacting trade and the economy.
Diversified farmer Joe Colace Jr., president of Five Crown Marketing in Brawley, is unsure of how this would impact his employees that carry green cards that enable them to travel across the border daily to work, but added growers in Imperial have seen an increased efficiency at the border in recent years.
"We already have spent several years encouraging the government to be a little more cooperative with the ability to move traffic from Mexico into the United States. Now with the sequester, I'm not sure of what direct affect it will have, but obviously all of us as Americans are concerned where we see automatic cuts appropriated," Colace said.
Most employees that cross the border to work on nearby farms and ranches travel early in the morning.
"It has become an accepted way of life that they just need to be ahead of the crowd so to speak. But until it actually happens and until we see the affect of some furloughed agents or border crossing officials, we really won't know," Colace said. "I'm cautiously optimistic that we will be fine as we begin to ramp up our labor needs in April, as the early spring harvest begins, and in May, which is our greatest labor demand in the Yuma Valley."
Imperial County vegetable grower Jack Vessey of Holtville believes sequester cuts to Customs and Border Protection would impact the daily crossing of workers.
"I'm concerned about border wait times. That would be the big thing for me right now," said Vessey, who is harvesting winter vegetables. "Our employees get in line sometimes at 2 in the morning to wait in line for two hours to cross the border, to be in the field between 5 and 6 in the morning."
Another impact from the budget sequester presented by the Obama administration included the curtailment of grants for pest and disease prevention, surveillance and response. Mandated by the Budget Control Act of 2011, sequestration is estimated to lead to $85.3 billion in cuts for fiscal year 2013 to domestic and military programs, which would be the start of $1 trillion in cuts during the next decade.
Rayne Pegg, manager of the California Farm Bureau Federation Federal Policy Division, said CFBF directors are in Washington, D.C., this week meeting with members of Congress on the effects of sequestration, as well as immigration reform.
"Every day we are learning more and more about the cuts and the impact on farm and state programs. We are talking to our representatives and agencies so they understand the real world impacts," Pegg said.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at email@example.com.)
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