Long before budget cutting became the preoccupation of the legislature, lawmakers chipped away at the State Agriculture Department budget.

“I don’t think there is any question about it that our Department of Agriculture does not have adequate resources to take care of the needs and grow the agriculture business in the state of Missouri,” says Rep. Charlie Schlottach (D-Owensville), who chaired the House Interim Committee on Emerging Issues in Agriculture.

One of the primary findings of the committee’s report is that the Department of Agriculture is underfunded. It doesn’t seem that way at first glance. In Fiscal Year 2002, legislators budgeted nearly $2 million in general revenue to fund incentives to invest in ethanol plants. That steadily grew to nearly $8 million four years later and ballooned to $46.7 million for both ethanol and bio-diesel incentives in FY 2009. The injection of so much money into the fledgling bio-fuels industry obscured the fact that general revenue flowing to the Department of Agriculture was shrinking. Lawmakers appropriated $14.7 million to the State Agriculture Department in Fiscal Year 2001. That would decline to $9.8 million in FY 2010. The State Department of Agriculture lost a third of its funding in those ten years and nearly a third of its employees.

An example of the toll budget cuts have taken on the department is found in the number of state veterinarians, down from 12 to five. State Agriculture Director Jon Hagler says five isn’t enough.

“We have more livestock markets in this state than any other state,” Hagler tells the Missourinet. “Having that critical ability of veterinarians to manage that livestock, managed disease control situations is vital to our success.”

Governor Nixon has proposed adding two more vets. Lawmakers will decide whether that recommendation stands.

Hagler says the budget cuts are getting pretty close to the bone.

“We’re a very important consumer protection agency,” Hagler says. “If resources drop below a certain level, and I think we’re at that critical level right now, you’re just not able to provide that function.”

Hagler has attempted to handle budget cuts by looking for efficiencies at the administrative level.

“Because I just don’t think we can go with less inspectors,” Hagler says. “I don’t want to compromise disease control. I don’t want to compromise safety in any way and I don’t want to compromise consumer protection.”

Problems in the grain industry which arose in the fraud case of grain broker Cathy Gieseker of Martinsburg and the bankruptcy of Gallatin Grain exposed the state’s shortage of grain inspectors and auditors.

Missouri Farm Bureau President Charlie Kruse, a former State Agriculture Director, says the department is being stretched thin. He says erosion of the Department of Agriculture’s budget is undermining its ability to carry out its statutory responsibilities. Kruse points out that the department has a wide range of responsibilities from making sure gas pumps are accurate to scales in grocery stores.

All aspects of state government have come under pressure during the recession. Legislative budget writers deny agriculture has been an easy target for cuts, but Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Rob Mayer (R-Dexter) is mystified by the long-term drop in funding.

“For an industry such as agriculture that’s our major industry in the state you would think that it wouldn’t have any problem in securing funding, but that hasn’t been the case,” Mayer tells the Missourinet.

Mayer says the legislature might have to be creative to shore-up the State Agriculture Department budget. That also is suggested by the Interim House Committee. Its report suggests that re-organizing by commodities might help, reasoning that if lawmakers understand the impact of the cuts they might hesitate before approving them. It also suggests that partnerships with commodity groups and the University of Missouri might provide avenues for the department to secure more funding.

We’ll explore just where agricultural issues really rank among legislative priorities tomorrow.

AUDIO: Brent Martin reports [5 min MP3]

Chart of State Agriculture Department ten-year budget trend