Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, plans to attempt once again to reform the existing farm bill payment limits, seeking to tighten the amount of people eligible for the government's agricultural programs.

Speaking on Agri-Pulse Newsmakers, Grassley said he’ll propose more restrictive payment limits in the upcoming reauthorization process, repeating similar efforts he's championed in previous bills.

“We got an issue where 10% of the biggest farmers are getting 70% of the benefits from the farm program,” said Grassley. “And remember, the farm program was meant to be a safety net. And I think small- or medium-sized farmers need that safety net more than big farmers.”

There’s been a long history of debate around farm bill payment limits. Grassley said he anticipates southern agriculture won’t support his proposal. However, he said fiscal conservatives and many Democrats are likely to be on board.

The farm bill currently caps payments for Agriculture Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage, for example, at $125,000 per person or legal entity. Other limits exist for some other programs in the legislation

Grassley’s work on the topic has focused on defining who qualifies as a farm manager and limiting the number of farm managers who may receive farm payments.

Congress and the USDA have clarified payments can only go to those “actively engaged in farming,” but the true definition of actively engaged remains a hotly-contested topic in many farm policy circles. USDA defines the term of someone who provides “significant contributions to the farming operation” such as “capital, land and/or equipment and active personal labor and/or active personal management.

Michael Lavender, policy director with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition, told Agri-Pulse tighter payment limits would make the farm safety net more equitable.

“We can have a more responsible safety net and also look at expanding access to crop insurance for folks who have been historically underserved - young and beginning farmers, specialty crop farmers,” Lavender said on Agri-Pulse Newsmakers. “It's important that we're building a safety net that represents the diversity of American agriculture, and we don't currently have that at this point in time.”

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Lavender said crop insurance specifically is skewed toward the largest and wealthiest producers in the country.

Bart Fischer is co-director of the Agricultural & Food Policy Center at Texas A&M University and previously worked on these issues during several farm bill reauthorizations as an economist for the House Agriculture Committee. Speaking on Newsmakers, Fischer said the payment limit discussion has been around for a long time.

“I think it's largely been there mainly for the most obvious reasons that Congress is interested in limiting the payments to certain individuals, given that that support does come from taxpayers,” Fischer said.

Fischer said it’s “probably past time” that legislators and policymakers took another look at payment limits, but perhaps for different reasons than those championed by Grassley, Lavender and others. 

“As farm policy has moved more to risk management, I think the payment limit conversation really hasn't kept up,” Fischer said.

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