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Fight expected over USDA's definition of 'actively engaged'.

Some farm-state lawmakers are urging USDA to write regulations that would tighten the definition of "actively engaged" in an effort to better target farm program payments/subsidies to farmers and ranchers who spend a designated time on farming operations.

Only those who meet the definition of actively engaged can qualify for farm program payments.

In the managers' statement that accompanied the 2008 farm bill, Congress included "actively engaged" among the criteria USDA should consider in setting new eligibly guidelines for payments.

USDA political appointees are being pressed to finalize this topic before Jan. 20, when the Obama administration begins, but it is likely the outgoing team may well punt the matter to the Obama administration and the new set of USDA officials who will come to office in 2009. If so, this would be one of the more important issues the incoming Obama agriculture policy officials--and some career USDA staffers--must confront eventually.

Some lawmakers, including Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) want USDA to tighten the definition of "actively engaged," in part by specifying a minimum number of hours that a potential program participant must spend farming or managing a farm operation. But push back is coming from other lawmakers, including southern legislators, who argue this would not be equitable for those maintaining several jobs to make ends meet--64 House members, many from the South, signed a letter to USDA last month opposing any change to the definition of an actively engaged farmer.

Senators opposing changes said that while the 2008 farm bill requires major significant reforms in payment limitations and eligibility, it does not require changes in the way individuals or entities are determined to be "actively-engaged-in-farming." They add that implementation of two new income tests and direct attribution will cause significant challenges and require adjustments for many farming operations.

A 2004 GAO survey said that while most large farm operations meet the requirement by asserting active personal management, there is no measurable, quantifiable standard for what constitutes active personal management. That is one of the tasks USDA apparently will confront.

Grassley and his Democratic counterpart, Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin (DIowa), want USDA to detail measurable standards--such as a minimum number of hours that must be spent working on or managing a farm--to prevent payments from going to absentee farmers.
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Publication:The Food & Fiber Letter
Date:Nov 17, 2008
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