A Tale of Two Rural Americas

An opinion editorial in the Des Moines Register on Sunday, Dec 7, 2014, calls for President Obama to fulfill the pledge he made to Iowan’s when campaigning for their votes in 2007. He promised to reform federal farm programs by closing the loopholes mega-farms use to get around the payment limits by subdividing their operations into multiple paper corporations.

That loophole consists of how the US Department of Agriculture defines “actively engaged” in farming. This definition determines the standard for who is deemed eligible to receive farm program payments. Right now that standard is set so low that it creates a loophole large enough to drive through with a combine.

In its current form, investors are considered actively involved in farm management by virtue of participating in two conference calls annually. That allows mega farms to get unlimited payments by forming general partnerships with investor partners, each qualifying the farm for another set of payments up to the limit, essentially subsidizing the largest and wealthiest farms on every acre they add to their operation.

So while President Obama vowed to take “immediate action” to close this loophole, he has yet to act. He passed on the opportunity in 2009, when the administration was focused on implementing the 2008 Farm Bill that called for them to redefine what it means to be “actively engaged” in farming.

They have before them another opportunity to redefine the “actively engaged” standard. Secretary Vilsack has said on many occasions that the farm bill has tied his hands (with language that was cobbled together in the dark of night, behind closed doors) and prevents him from enacting any real reform of the actively engaged definition. As the opinion editorial stated, we disagree.
They have the authority to issue a rule that ensures anyone deemed eligible for payments must contribute at least 1,000 hours or 50% of their commensurate share of the total hours necessary to operate a farm of comparable size, using any combination of labor or active personal management.

At the end of the day, this is about finding the political will to do the right thing, to defend the families that have built farms, ranches and small towns out of rural America’s prairie and timber, over the greed of America’s largest and wealthiest mega-farms.

Secretary Vilsack often pushes back against this criticism, suggesting that this administration has invested millions in beginning and small and mid-sized family farmers and ranchers. We support those investments and actually helped create most of those provisions.

However, that pales in comparison to the unlimited farm program payments to the nation’s largest and wealthiest farms, subsidies they use to bid up land costs, drive their smaller neighbors out of business, and bar the next generation of family farmers from getting started. In short, the largest and wealthiest farms are given the upper hand, sort of like they are given two dice and more money in the game of Monopoly, while the rest of rural America is given one and much less money. But this is real life, not a board game, and we need this administration to level the playing field in a real and meaningful way.

We need them to do the right thing and draft an “actively engaged” standard that has teeth, not loopholes you can drive through with a combine.

You can help by expressing your support for a strong actively engaged standard. A letter to the editor in The Des Moines Register would hold weight. Contact me, Traci Bruckner, at tracib@cfra.org or 402.687.2103 ext 1016 to learn more.