Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, on Wednesday took to the Senate floor to criticize USDA for a late change in how some family members are defined as "actively engaged" to continue collecting larger farm-program payments.
Grassley said he has fought to strengthen the safety net for farmers who face weather disasters or other market challenges that were not of their doing, but can financially devastate a farming operation. The senator said the country relies on these family farm operations for food security.
"These same family farmers operate on very thin margins. These farmers ought to qualify for help during tough times since losing these operations would risk our nation's food supply," Grassley said.
Still, Grassley said taxpayers and non-farm state lawmakers may stop supporting a farm-safety net if spending programs are not held accountable or left unchecked. Losing urban support for the farm-safety net is why Grassley said he is "deeply concerned about USDA's recent proposal to rollback rules on that put teeth in the definition of the legal term called 'actively engaged' farming."
Grassley was reacting to a USDA decision in mid-November to restore previous definitions of "active personal management," and "significant contribution" to the rules on farm payments. USDA described the change as a "correction" to the earlier rule proposal that had tighten those definitions for family farms. Under USDA's latest rules, more restrictive definitions would apply to farms comprised of non-family members versus operations including family members listed for farm payments.
Some accounting firms and others argued that the more restrictive rule adopted back in August would make it harder to bring the next generation into the business. Older members of the operation also would likely have to be bought out.
"Long-lost relatives, by changing these rules, who probably have never lifted a finger on the farm, should not get away with collecting farm payments," Grassley said on the Senate floor. "Farm payments should only go to operators that I say have a definition that's a little factitious but somewhat realistic -- unless they have dirt under their fingernails."
The backtracking by USDA means "more mega-farmers will take advantage of this loophole and people that are not actively engaged in farming will benefit from farm payments," Grassley said.
The senator said Congress must close the loopholes "so that we have only family farmers benefiting from the farm program."
On Tuesday, Grassley also pointed to a recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report pointing out that USDA still has weak oversight of farm-payment compliance reviews. The same report also pointed to high payments for farm operations such as joint ventures and partnerships compared to individual farmers or individual farmers operating a small businesses.
GAO report on eligibility reviews for farm payments: https://www.gao.gov/…
Grassley speech on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/…
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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