Dept. of Ag – What’s it for?

AND WHAT SHOULDN’T IT BE DOING?

Like every other state, South Carolina maintains a Department of Agriculture. But what does the Department do? Its stated mission is to “promote and nurture the growth and development of South Carolina’s agriculture industry and its related businesses while assuring the safety and security of the buying public.”

What’s notable about this statement is that the regulatory part of it (“while assuring the safety and security of the buying public”) is tacked on at the end, almost as an afterthought. The real purpose of the agency – and this is reflected in its budget appropriations over the last several years – is the first part: the part about promoting and nurturing the “growth and development” of the state’s agriculture industry “and its related businesses.”

What does that mean, exactly? A curious observer could be forgiven for thinking it means taxpayer-financed incentives and marketing campaigns – efforts that often have unclear or even negative returns on investment such as the Department’s money-losing Market Bulletin.

This year, the Department will see its budget increase by $2.14 million, most of which will come from recurring sources, meaning that the increase will almost certainly be permanent. That increase came in three different forms:

  • Laboratory Services, $250,000
  • Marketing and Branding, $1.5 million
  • The Agribusiness Economic Development Initiative, $250,000

The latter two items can be fairly described as funneling money to special interests. The Agribusiness Economic Development Initiative is similar to the incentive program the Deal Closing Fund – lump sums of cash given to private companies for the purpose of “luring” them to relocate or expand in South Carolina. Unlike the Deal Closing Fund, however, the Agribusiness Initiative recruitment money can only be given to companies that use South Carolina-grown products, or companies that service or supply agriculture in the state.

Marketing and branding is another handout to the agriculture industry in South Carolina. Granted: the agriculture industry may benefit hugely from renewed marketing efforts. But it remains unclear why South Carolina taxpayers should be forced to foot the bill for it – a bill that, if we include non-recurring money, comes to around $2 million. Why, after all, should the agriculture industry be allowed to outsource to taxpayers what should be a major component of its expenses?

In other funding sources, the Department saw $400,000 appropriated for the State Farmer’s Market Infrastructure and $600,000 for Market Operations in non-recurring funds, and received $50,000 for Phase 2 of the Farmers Market Property Acquisition and Expansion from the Capital Reserve Fund. While it’s worth asking why the Department needs yet more money ($50,000) for property acquisition for its notoriously budget-busting State Farmers Market, the Senate in its initial 2012-2013 budget appropriated $16.3 million for the same purpose – for reasons that remain at this point highly questionable.

According to analysis by the Department itself, it has experienced a net loss of $58,000 on its operations at the State Farmers Market, and the proposed $16.3 million for Phase 2 would have been used to buy land privately held by the chairman of the State Ports Authority. In fact, The Nerve has reported that one state lawmaker, who suggests the land is worth only a small fraction of $16.3 million, has called for an audit of the proposed deal.

The bottom line? The South Carolina Department of Agriculture saw a budget increase of approximately 17.2 percent this year, largely for functions that should be left to private businesses, as is the case in most other industries (though notoriously not tourism). If the state’s agriculture officials really want to help South Carolina farmers, they can start by taking far fewer taxpayer dollars out of the economy – and out of farmers’ pockets – for the purpose of funding “marketing” and “economic development” initiatives of highly questionable effectiveness.

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