Commentary: USDA’s billions in wasteful spending

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U.S. Senator Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has done us all a favor by publishing his new Waste Book 2013 on nutty government spending. Thirty billion dollars this year alone. Because this is the holiday season, we need to laugh and be joyous, and his new book evokes both laughs and disgust.

The news media did point out the waste of $300 million spent on a super blimp and not used. The media also made fun of several other expenditures from the Waste Book. USDA and agriculture were spared by the media but not by Sen. Coburn. Your USDA complains mightily about facing budget pressures. Take a look at some incredible USDA expenditures of your tax money last year.

Item 5 from the Waste Book describes a USDA home loan program to help low and moderate income people. Thousands of borrowers, many not farmers borrow under this loan program.  In 2013, more than 100 families received individual loan guarantees for $500,000 or more from USDA to purchase residences in Hawaii. USDA protects the banks by repaying 90 percent of the loans. No down payment or maximum purchase price is required. A farmer, presumably, needs only to buy a home in a rural area. In this case, the rural areas were Maui and Kauai.

In 2011 there were 18,808 home-loan foreclosures at USDA costing taxpayers $295 million. Last year this program lost $496 million. (Smart folks at USDA to continue this program.) 

Item 16 describes USDA spending approximately $171,000,000 with U.S. sugar producers and the producers pay the loan back with sugar. In 2013, the government lost $171,500,000 because sugar companies could not or would not pay back USDA the money borrowed. Apparently USDA sold this sugar to an ethanol producer for just a few million dollars and in one case booked a $53,300,000 loss. Sugar producers are simply defaulting on their loans. Smart folks at USDA!

Item 52 is really smelly. The Rich Earth Institute, a non-profit in Vermont, received a $15,000 grant from USDA to collect human urine in the amount of 3,000 gallons. The human urine is to be used as fertilizer. It is sanitized and will be applied to fields to produce crops. The study is to promote human manure as a resource and “is the first…approved and publicly documented use of urine as a fertilizer in the United States.” (Apparently the folks at USDA have never gone to China).  I certainly would not want to suggest that because then we would see millions spent on travel and study on the use of human waste. USDA advises that a 2007 study in Finland found that cabbage fertilized with urine grew faster and larger; however, the sauerkraut from cabbage grown with urine tasted different. Surprise! Surprise!

Item 65 – Cash Cows. The next brilliant expenditure of USDA is to our friends at Kansas State University who are concerned that cattle and bison may shrink in overall size in the next 50 years because of global warming. USDA and Kansas researchers apparently believe that rising temperatures may cause grass to grow more slowly resulting in smaller cattle and bison. K-State will be joined by scientists from Oklahoma State, University of Oklahoma and Tarleton State University. The K-State research team, according to Sen. Coburn, will be led by three K-State professors, one of whom is an associate professor of sociology. Where is our friend Dr. Flinchbaugh when we really need him?

Item 78 – This one I could not pass up for a good laugh. Yale University has received, not from USDA but from the National Science Foundation, $384,989 to study the oddities of the duck penis. This study comes from the 2009 Stimulus Bill (aptly named!). The NSF website claims we need to better understand duck reproduction. Really!

The description, according to Sen. Coburn, notes the project will, "incorporate high school students from underrepresented minorities." I am not making this up but a key finding of this study is describing the corkscrew-like shape of a duck’s penis, which apparently has been determined by one researcher saying, "This is literally anti-screw anatomy." As I said, you cannot make this up.

I have been picking on the silliness at USDA and their wasting of our tax money but cannot close without discussing Sen. Coburn’s bridge to nowhere. Apparently the bridge project in Alaska is still alive. The bridge to nowhere is expected to cost approximately $750,000,000 for a two lane project to a small island in Alaska with few people living there. Sen. Coburn says as of Oct. 31, 2013, $67,000,000 has been spent on a bridge to nowhere that is unlikely to ever be built.

Sen. Colburn's Waste Book will not only make you laugh, but also cry for our country.

Gary H. Baise is a principal at OFW Law (Olsson Frank Weeda Terman Matz P.C.). This article first appeared in Farm Futures magazine. The opinions presented here are expressly those of the author. For more information, go to

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Ulster, PA  |  January, 03, 2014 at 09:34 AM

Ridiculous but sad. -- Those housing loans are for low income families, more specifically aimed at non-farm families in a rural setting. Usually do not find them made to farmers. Apparently Hawaii is considered rural.

Suzanne Hubbard    
Lanham, MD  |  January, 03, 2014 at 11:55 AM

According to the Hawaii Department of Agriculture's web site: "Agriculture has always had a special place in Hawaii history and continues to be an important industry, generating $2.9 billion to the state’s annual economy and directly and indirectly providing 42,000 jobs." [as of Jan. 31, 2013]. Just as on the mainland, the people in Hawaii who work in agricultural fields generally aren't those buying high-end homes. In addition, the high cost of real estate in Hawaii often means that several families (ohana) will share a residence or property. Offering housing loans to low- and medium-income agricultural families in Hawaii is no more wasteful than if they were located on the mainland. Most of the waste in government programs (not just USDA) comes from poor plan development and execution for worthwhile goals.

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