Opinion: Rural America Gets a Lump of Coal for Christmas

Traci Bruckner Center for Rural Affairs tracib@cfra.org,

On Dec. 17, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued their final rule defining what it means to be actively engaged in farming, and thereby eligible to receive federal farm payments. The final rule serves only to ensure access to unlimited farm program payments for the vast majority of the nation’s largest and wealthiest farms, and writes loopholes directly into regulation.

USDA is more interested in allowing the nation’s largest farms to avoid meaningful payment limits than in making farm payment limits more effective - the intended purpose of a new rule. USDA stated that the 2014 Farm Bill prohibits them from applying any new rule to farms structured solely of family members. We disagree. In fact, if  USDA had interpreted the 2014 Farm Bill language correctly, they would have crafted a rule requiring that for farms structured solely of family members, those family members qualify for farm payments only if they provide labor - meaning they actually work on the farm.

The new rule affects less than 4 percent of farm operations. It leaves the loophole door wide open for the other 96 percent.  USDA has issued an invitation to farm reorganizations undertaken to maximize subsidies beyond the payment limit.  Even for those farms who choose to keep their business structures organized as part of the 4 percent, the new rule provides for a limit over $1 million in subsidies per year for the largest farms.  This is the antithesis of reform, or more aptly for the season, a lump of coal.

Established in 1973, the Center for Rural Affairs is a private, non-profit organization working to strengthen small businesses, family farms and ranches, and rural communities through action oriented programs addressing social, economic, and environmental issues.