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Will the Bush USDA punt on payment reforms?

Agriculture.com Staff 12/23/2008 @ 5:59pm

During the debate of the 2008 Farm Bill, when former Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns would talk about the need for payment reforms, he often used a map of Manhattan in New York City to show the locations of absentee landowners who got payments.

To help stop that, the Bush Administration proposed ending payments to anyone with adjusted gross income of more than $200,000. Southerners on the agriculture committees in Congress balked, but agreed to a $500,000 cap for nonfarmers.

But there's an even bigger loophole that reformers looked for last Friday when USDA announced that it will soon publish its new rules for payment limits under the new farm bill.

Since 1988, people who get commodity program payments are supposed to be "actively engaged in farming."

But, as Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican, pointed out to reporters on Tuesday, in both Republican and Democratic administrations, the USDA hasn't really enforced that.

Ferd Hoefner, of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition in Washington agrees. In theory, to get a payment, someone has to supply either labor or management to the farm.

"The current test is 1,000 hours of labor and no real test at all for management," Hoefner told Agriculture Online. In the past, just talking about a farm's plans over the telephone could count as 'management.' "

Reformers, including Grassley and Senator Byron Dorgan, a North Dakota Democrat, want the test to include both measurable labor AND management, not labor OR Management.

So, when USDA put out its press release late last Friday, Hoefner was disappointed to see liberal use of the word, "or."

According to USDA's statement Friday, "To be 'actively engaged in farming,' the individual or entity must make significant contributions to the farming operation of: (1) capital, equipment, land, or a combination; and (2) personal labor or active personal management, or a combination."

Today, the USDA's proposed "interim final regulation" on this was posted online in the Federal Register. It confirmed Hoefner's belief that the rule is still "extremely weak."

The final regulation on payment reform won't be finished before the Bush admiminstration leaves office, Hoefner said.

Grassley said Tuesday that he believes the Obama administration will try to tighten up payment limit loopholes.

"I think you're going to find the new administration more to my way of thinking on this issue," Grassley said.

Hoefner also believes that President-elect Obama's campaign platform suggests tougher enforcement.

"We do hold out great hopes that this will finally be dealt with," Hoefner said. "It's been a long time since 1988."

During the debate of the 2008 Farm Bill, when former Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns would talk about the need for payment reforms, he often used a map of Manhattan in New York City to show the locations of absentee landowners who got payments.

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