USDA struggles to define 'actively engaged' within new farm bill

By Agri-Pulse staff

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, Aug. 20, 2014 - It's a two-word phrase buried in the new, 959-page farm bill. And so far, it has stayed buried.

Agriculture industry sources in Washington say there is no sign yet that USDA plans to restrict the meaning of a key phrase - “actively engaged” - that critics say could help prevent fraud and abuse in the farm program. Specifically, Senate Agriculture Committee member Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, says only individuals who are “actively engaged” in a farming operation should be eligible to receive payments.

But since a May 7 committee hearing on the 2014 Farm Bill's implementation that featured USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack, the department has fallen silent on the issue and now few expect any announcement until the end of the year.

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“When I've dug around and tried to find out what's happening, it doesn't seem like they've gotten very far with it,” Ferd Hoefner, policy director at the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told Agri-Pulse. “I think it will come fairly late in the process. As far as I can tell, it's way down the list.”

At the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), Dale Moore, executive director of public policy, said his staff also believes no action is imminent - and none may come at all. Moore noted that Deputy USDA Secretary Krysta Harden gave a presentation to the federation in July about the farm bill's implementation - and never mentioned the “actively engaged” issue at all.

“My suspicion would be that if they have all this work to do to get the farm bill implemented, this is probably not something they have added to their plan of work,” Moore said.

If Grassley has his way, the two words at issue will soon get plenty of notice from the U.S. agriculture industry. The senior senator from one of the nation's most agriculturally dominant states, Grassley says Vilsack already has rule-making authority to tightly define the phrase and prevent fraud. Otherwise, he said a fraction of wealthy farmers will inappropriately receive the bulk of any potential farm program payouts.

“The loophole in the farm program that enables non-farmers to receive the benefits of the farm program puts young and beginning farmers at a disadvantage,” Grassley said Monday. “If done correctly, (restricting the definition) could really help ensure that farm program payments go to farmers with dirt under their fingernails.”

Before reaching Vilsack, the task of a decision on the “actively engaged” definition will fall first to the USDA's Farm Service Agency, where Public Affairs Chief Kent Politsch confirmed Monday that a decision isn't imminent.

“The regulation is still being worked on and probably won't be ready to send to the Federal Register until later this fall,” Politsch said.

Stronger, stricter payment limits were actually included in both the House and Senate versions of the farm bill, but were stripped out during conference talks between the two chambers. A Grassley aide says restricting the definition of “actively engaged” individuals is intended as a way to get around the many caveats that were inserted into the bill at that time.

At the May 7 Agriculture Committee hearing, Grassley directly pressed Vilsack on the potential for abuse of the farm program without a stricter definition of who can receive payments. He then displayed a personnel chart from a farm in Louisiana that listed 16 “managers” who received a total of $650,000 in federal payments in 2012. Several of the individuals didn't even live in the state, Grassley said.

Vilsack acknowledged past abuses of payments created by overly broad definitions of the “actively engaged” phrase. He said efforts were made to define the term more clearly, but it proved to be “not an easy task.” He said his staff is still studying the issue.

The 2014 Farm Bill created a whole new set of problems, Vilsack said, by again using poor, vague language regarding family farms. That created a “very narrow lane” for discretion by the department, he said.

“The restriction that was in place (in) the 2014 Farm Bill really narrows the capacity of the secretary in this particular space,” Vilsack said. “You've essentially said if it's a family farm - with a very broad definition of a family farm - then you can't be focusing on ‘actively engaged.'”

Like Vilsack, Hoefner and Moore both agreed that the USDA is being forced to walk a tightrope between definitions that are either too broad or too narrow. Hoefner calls it “a big, sticky legal problem” created by rushed, poor writing by the House and Senate conferees.

“The problem is while it's fairly clear what the big four negotiators thought they were doing, they didn't actually do it, and now it's created a very, very difficult problem for the USDA,” he said. “For family farms or partnerships, they've actually tightened the rules so that families that legitimately qualified in the past would no longer qualify. I don't think that's what they intended to do, but that's what they wrote.”

Moore said AFBF is similarly worried. “If it's defined too narrowly, then it can cause problems for operations that may have special ways they are set up for all family members to participate,” he said.

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