OIG: USDA needs to improve conservation compliance reviews

By Whitney Forman-Cook

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 4, 2016 - USDA's Office of Inspector General (OIG) says officials in the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) and the Farm Service Agency (FSA) need to improve the way they handle conservation compliance reviews.

According to OIG, only the producers enrolled in one FSA program - the Direct and Counter-cyclical Program (DCP), which wasn't re-authorized by the 2014 farm bill - were subject to random sample reviews from 2012-2014, even though all recipients of payments, loans or other benefits from NRCS and FSA programs were required to comply with the highly erodible land (HEL) and wetland conservation requirements.

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In 2015, producers enrolled in NRCS programs and those who were receiving federal crop insurance premium subsidies through the Risk Management Agency (RMA) - who are also subject to conservation compliance requirements under the 2014 farm bill - were not subject to review either. That year, FSA used data for all the producers in its programs, (instead of just DCP), however, it omitted data from 10 states, and produced duplicate and invalid records, OIG found.

“USDA participants in these 10 States received over $4 billion in FSA and NRCS program payments for FY 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 read.

In effect, OIG says, the agencies can't verify that the results from the random reviews they did conduct between 2012 and 2015 accurately represent conservation compliance among producers. During that time, upwards of $14 billion in USDA payments were made to producers enrolled in FSA and NRCS programs each year, according to USDA's Economic Research Service.

OIG recommended that NRCS, FSA and RMA develop and implement a memorandum of understanding (MOU) outlining the roles of each agency in conducting random reviews. It also suggested the agencies establish a working group to define which data will be used for 2016 reviews, and to develop and implement a methodology for conducting those reviews.

NRCS Chief Jason Weller told OIG earlier this year that, on behalf of the three agencies, they would develop an MOU by an estimated April 29 deadline, and that their working group would develop processes for the 2016 compliance reviews by the end of January. When asked whether these deadlines were met, NRCS did not respond immediately.

In an exclusive interview today, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack told Agri-Pulse he was confident that FSA and NRCS would take the steps necessary to correct their review process.

“They've been working together to respond to that OIG report and to do it in a way that is consistent with the decisions that need to be made,” he said. “When there's a justification and reason for OIG criticism, we take it very seriously.”

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A second OIG report on wetland determinations is rumored to be due out soon, but Vilsack said he didn't know about that report, nor would he, given his relationship to OIG.

One sportsmen's group, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), has serious qualms with the first report's findings.

In an email to Agri-Pulse, Ariel Wiegard, TRCP's Center for Agriculture and Private Lands director, said that “Conservation compliance creates a compact between taxpayers and agricultural producers - it needs to be managed in a way that is workable for farmers, while meeting the public's need for confidence in (and legal defensibility of) federal farm programs.”

“We aren't assuming any foul play by either USDA or America's producers,” she continued, “but we are concerned that NRCS cannot ensure that its reviews accurately reflect USDA's compliance rate. This is especially troubling as we move toward a more complex conservation compliance program with the 2014 Farm Bill's addition of crop insurance.”

Wiegard also pointed out that based on the report, the states with the highest compliance loads - i.e. those with the most land that must be in compliance with the conservation requirements - weren't subject to reviews between 2012 and 2015.

“The areas in greatest need of monitoring are receiving the least attention,” she said. “We've heard from some stakeholders that they are frustrated that USDA could be making improper payments to producers who are breaking their contract rules, and that, if the agencies aren't doing their part, taxpayers have no mechanism to ensure compliance other than the farmers' self-certification.”

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