Tiresome abuse of farm program payment dollars

Congress has created a strong safety net for farmers through commodity, price support, disaster assistance, and conservation programs. These dollars are important to farms across America, as they give farmers some stability in a volatile agricultural landscape.

Farmers face exceedingly high input costs, depressed commodity prices, and weather extremes, but they continue to spend countless hours working to grow viable crops, year after year.

Well, some folks are investing their energy. Unfortunately, a small number of very large operations aren’t, but they’re being paid by the USDA as if they were. A recent Government Accountability Office (GAO) report shows abuse of farm program payments, and the findings are mind-boggling.

For more than 30 years, legislation has been in the farm bill to sensibly limit farm program payments. Congress set a payment limit of $125,000 per “person or legal entity” to help rein in farm program expenditures. The payments most individual farmers receive do not even come close to that limit, but the largest operations far exceed it. In fact, the GAO reported that, in 2015, the top 50 farms in the country received nearly $900,000 each.

Why is this happening? The answer is loopholes in our farm safety net. Some farming operations, particularly general partnerships, are claiming payments for several individuals or entities, as long as they qualify as “actively engaged.” If an entity claims to contribute “personal labor” or “active personal management,” they can collect payment. The system is rife with loopholes.

The farming operation that received the highest payments also offers the best illustration of how this system is abused. Comprised of two individuals and 32 corporations, it received $3.7 million in payments in 2015. All of those individuals and corporations claimed to have contributed “active personal management,” but none reported “personal labor.”

This tells us that the folks running these mega farms aren’t spending countless hours in the field. I doubt they know what variety of crop they grew in 2015, or what the yields were on each individual field. But, I’m sure they know how much the government paid them, and potentially used those dollars to buy out their neighbor.

This abuse of farm program payment dollars is getting tiresome, especially for people, like Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), who have been advocating to close payment limit loopholes for decades. Congress has the opportunity with the 2018 farm bill to do so. They can review 2014 draft legislation, when both the House and Senate agreed to make sound and effective limits that would provide a solution to this debacle. Unfortunately, the Congressional Conference Committee removed those provisions from the final bill.

These excessively large payments drive farm consolidation, thereby increasing barriers for beginning farmers and decreasing the number of true family farms. This is a terrible misuse of taxpayer funds. We need effective payment limitations to ensure taxpayer dollars aren’t funding the squandering of rural America.

We’re at the cusp of a new farm bill. Isn’t it time for Congress to close these loopholes and stop this abuse of taxpayer dollars?

Feature photo: Individuals and entities who contribute to personal labor or active personal management qualify for up to $125,000 from the USDA. A recent Government Accountability Office report shows abuse of these payments, with one farming operation - comprised of two individuals and 32 corporations - receiving $3.7 million. Congress has an opportunity to close these payment limit loopholes in the 2018 farm bill. | Photo by Rhea Landholm