Clashes in philosophy and strategy between farmers and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) are certainly nothing new, but a current conflict has at least one Mississippi Delta group vowing to take the fight to the courts if need be.
At a recent board meeting, Delta Council Farm Policy Committee chairman Dan Branton said the Stoneville-based organization was “gravely disappointed” in the USDA’s apparent effort to change the language in the 2008 Farm Bill that affects eligibility to participate in farm programs.
“Farmers are submerged in some of the most difficult economic times we have ever faced, and our own Department of Agriculture now decides to restrict the income protection features of the 2008 Farm Bill further than Congress stipulated in the law,” Branton said.
At the heart of the Delta Council’s beef with the USDA is the definition of “actively engaged” in the 2008 Farm Bill. According to John Phillips, a Yazoo County farmer who serves as president of the Delta Council, Congress passed the 2008 Farm Bill with the same definition of actively engaged as the prior Farm Bill. Phillips said the bill called anyone who owns a share of a farm to be defined as actively engaged, even if a party was not actually involved in day-to-day farming operations.
He explained that this is prevalent in the farming community, particularly on family farms. One or more parties might be heavily involved in the decisions and operations of a farming operation but have another career and not actually drive tractors, plant, harvest, etc. The 2008 Farm Bill, as passed by Congress, allowed that, according to Phillips.
However, the Delta Council contends that the USDA, utilizing authority it acknowledges the agency has, is moving to change the actively engaged definition. If a party owns part of a farm, but gains livelihood from another profession, he or she is disqualified for farm program participation.
Phillips gave this example: Two brothers own a 1,000-acre family farm. One is the full-time farmer, The other is, say, an attorney. The attorney may meet with his farmer brother regularly on farm business and has significant input on crops to plant, equipment to purchase, etc. However, since farming is not his primary occupation, only 500 acres of the farm would be eligible for farm programs if the USDA language-change occurs.
“Can you see what kind of impact this could have?” Phillips asked, who said he was one of the family farmers who would be negatively affected by the proposed new language. “I don’t have a figure in front of me, but I can say that this will impact a very significant percentage of farmers. I am extremely concerned.”
Phillips grew up on the farm, and has been farming himself since the early 1970s. He has seen plenty of ups and downs, but said that this issue, coupled with the current global economic woes, high fuel costs and weak commodity prices has him as troubled as he has ever been.
“Unless rice turns a profit, and I haven’t checked my budget figures on rice, there is no crop any creative mind in the South can turn a profit on right now,” he said succinctly.
He said he finds it disturbing that Congress, an elected, representative body, can pass legislation that can be revised by a federal agency that does not answer to the voting public.
When asked if thought the USDA was definitely moving to change the provision, Phillips said, “That’s my understanding. That’s what they are going to do.”
He said he has heard from other farm groups in other states, and they “don’t know what to do. We’re up against the federal government. What can you do?”
If that sounds like a concession of defeat, Phillips was quick to say otherwise.
“We fully intend to enlist the support of all national commodity organizations that represent farmers to oppose USDA actions to restrict eligibility, and if the department insists upon carrying this forward, we will enlist the support of our friends in Congress and even consider the courts as a final recourse for reversing any such action by USDA,” said Phillips.
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at firstname.lastname@example.org.