WASHINGTON, Feb. 24, 2015 – The top Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee is pressing Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to significantly tighten eligibility rules for farm subsidies.

The definition of what it means to be “actively engaged” in farming, a key stipulation for receiving federal farm subsidies, should be made “as clear and strong as possible,” Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told Vilsack at a hearing Tuesday.

Vilsack has stressed that a provision in the 2014 farm bill directing the department to tighten the definition included language intended to limit how far USDA could go, including an exemption for family-run operations.

A proposed rule spelling out the new definition is under review at the Office of Management and Budget.

“What we are focusing on are the general partnerships and limited partnerships that have often been the source of concerns,” Vilsack said. The department intends to provide a “more concrete and specific definition," he said.

Republicans on the committee reminded Vilsack that they are watching the issue, too. Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said it was “exceedingly important” that Vilsack consult with the committee.

Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., asked Vilsack if he would be “strictly” following the farm bill provisions on the issue. “Yes,” Vilsack replied.

Stabenow also raised concerns about the administration’s proposal to cut the Conservation Stewardship Program, saying it would undermine future spending levels for CSP. 

Vilsack defended the cut by saying he was concerned about the ability of the Natural Resources Conservation Program to handle sign-up work.

“It’s important to right size the amount of work with the amount of workers,” Vilsack said.

Vilsack pledged to closely monitor signup for the farm bill’s new commodity programs and provide flexibility to producers amid the crush of work that Farm Service Agency is expected to face.

He told the committee that he would be getting daily updates on the rate of enrollment for the new Agricultural Risk Coverage and Price Loss Coverage programs.

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As of this week, 25.3 percent of the farms that are expected to enroll in one of the programs had actually done so, an increase of 7.6 percentage points from last week.

The deadline for sign-up is still more than a month away, and Vilsack stopped short of saying FSA might extend the deadline as was done with the new Margin Protection Program for dairy producers.

“We will be very attentive to the percentage of producers who have signed up,” Vilsack said.

He also suggested FSA would provide some leeway to growers who don’t get their paperwork fully finalized. “As we have been flexible in the past we will be flexible in the future,” he said.

Vilsack also said he was working with the National Cotton Council on concerns that a new payment limit for individual subsidies would force producers to store cotton under federal loan rather than to market the commodity. Ronnie Lee, a farmer from Georgia who also testified at the hearing, said the ARC and PLC payments many farmers are likely to receive for other crops could leave them little room under their payment limit for marketing loan gains on cotton.