USDA’s inspector general says the Farm Service Agency and the Natural Resources Conservation Service need to do a better job of sharing information so they can accurately evaluate conservation compliance by farmers.
According to an audit by USDA’s Office of the Inspector General, FSA and NRCS stumbled badly in overseeing the conservation program between 2012 and 2015. First, FSA failed to send a complete and accurate list of conservation tracts to NRCS, which uses that information for random compliance reviews.
How incomplete was it? “The dataset FSA sent to NRCS did not include data from all 50 states, including states with historically large numbers of valid tracts like Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, and Missouri,” according to the audit.
Second, NCRS failed to address the situation with their counterparts at FSA. “NRCS officials in Ft. Collins, Co., noticed some state data were missing, but did not question FSA’s data,” the report said.
As result, tracts in these 10 states were not subject to random selection to ensure compliance with (highly erodible land) and wetland conservation provisions,” despite the fact that farmers and ranchers in those 10 states received more than $4 billion in FSA and NRCS payments in fiscal 2014.
“We asked both agencies about the reason they either missed, or neglected to follow up on, the missing state data; neither was able to supply an answer,” the report said.
Under the 2014 farm bill, farmers and ranchers must self-certify that they are following conservation practices on fragile land to be eligible for USDA crop insurance subsidies, operating and farm storage loans and other payments. NRCS is then supposed to do random reviews to ensure producers are in compliance with those conservation rules.
Such gaps in oversight could be problematic for producers and taxpayers alike, given the $14 billion annually in USDA payments that are subject to conservation compliance. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said this week that he would like to expand the number of acres in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) in the next farm bill, but that may be a tough sell, given tight federal budgets.