'Actively Engaged' a Major Farm Policy Issue

November 10, 2008 06:00 PM

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Outgoing USDA officials urged to issue new rules, but topic may be punted to new Obama team

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

Some farm-state lawmakers are urging USDA to write regulations that would tighten the definition of “actively engaged” in an effort to better target farm program payments/subsidies to farmers and ranchers who spend a designated time on farming operations.

Only those who meet the definition of actively engaged can qualify for farm program payments. USDA tried unsuccessfully several years ago to tighten the rules, but Congress again via the 2008 Farm Bill threw the issue back to USDA – the manager’s statement included “actively engaged” among the criteria USDA should consider in setting new eligibly guidelines for payments.

The outgoing Bush administration USDA political officials are being pressed to finalize this topic before Jan. 20, when the Obama administration begins.

But others say the outgoing team may well punt the matter to the new incoming USDA officials and the Obama administration. If so, this would be one of the more important issues the incoming Obama agriculture policy officials – and some career USDA staffers – must eventually confront.

The push and push back. Some lawmakers, including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Ia.) want USDA to tighten the definition of “actively engaged” in part by specifying a minimum number of hours that a potential program participant must spend farming or managing a farm operation.

But push back is coming from other lawmakers, including Southern legislators, who argue this would not be equitable for those maintaining several jobs to make ends meet -- 64 House members, many from the South, signed a letter to USDA last month opposing any change to the definition of an actively engaged farmer.
Senators opposing changes said the while the 2008 Farm Bill requires major significant reforms in payment limitations and eligibility, it does not require changes in the way individuals or entities are determined to be “actively-engaged-in-farming.” That added that implementation of two new income tests and direct attribution will cause significant challenges and require adjustments for many farming operations.

End around. A 2004 survey by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said that while most large farm operations meet the requirement by asserting active personal management, there is no measurable, quantifiable standard for what constitutes active personal management. That is one of the tasks USDA apparently will confront.

What the reformers want. Grassley and his Democratic counterpart, Ag Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), want USDA to detail measurable standards — such as a minimum number of hours that must be spent working on or managing a farm — to prevent payments from going to absentee farmers.

Comments: This issue is far from over. Some think Obama's victory will provide "another chance" to reform farm policy beyond the 2008 Farm Bill. But the history of this issue shows that when you start to change rules on a major sensitive topic like this, it's fight time in a Washington, even in a city that is so tired of past battles.

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.


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