vegansaurus!

01/08/2010

UPDATE: Obama reverses pledge to stop funding factory farming!?  »

OK, we promised more investigating, and here it is. Let’s get some things out of the way first, though. The USDA rule in question isn’t just about subsidizing factory farms, it’s about corporate farms in general. So, large corporate farms like soybeans, corn, wheat, and so on, and yes, livestock and dairy.

Now, if I were dictator, instead of closing the loophole, I’d just eliminate the farm subsidy program completely. Farm subsidies are a weird throwback to a horse-and-buggy era, and they’re bad news no matter who gets them. Think about all the water, fuel and land that goes to waste to grow food that no one needs. Stupid, right? And if the experience of New Zealand is any guide, ditching farm subsidies would actually save family farms, not hurt them.

But unfortunately I’m not dictator (though MAYBE SOMEDAY and I’ll tell you what, my first act as vegan dictator would be a hell of lot more dictatorial than free brownies, not that I don’t love a good brownie) and it’s pretty obvious that, at the very least, the loophole needs to be closed. So when I heard the change didn’t go through, it triggered my WTF-dar.

So here’s what I set out to answer: (1) Did the rule require an act of Congress to change, or was it fully within the executive branch’s power? In other words, did Obama make a promise that needed new law passed by Congress, or was it in his administration’s power to change? (2) Are there any signs that his USDA plans to tackle it later, or does this reflect a genuine change in priorities for the rest of his first term?

To answer this I called the USDA (and in the process learned that if you want to find out what your government is doing, don’t call your representative, call the bored mid-level civil servant in D.C.) and found the final rules. The original proposed rules were published and made available for public comment on Feb. 9, 2009, with the final rules that sparked blogger outrage published Thursday, Jan. 7. Warning, both links are very dry PDFs.

And I saved you the trouble of reading them. At issue is the definition of “actively engaged in farming.” As defined by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill, a person who might be “actively engaged in farming” is vague enough to include spouses of farmers (which is fine) to farm management (loophole alert!).

So when the USDA published the new rules for the comment period, they got flooded with comments asking them to tighten up this definition of “actively engaged in farming”. Read on and see how they chose to respond to one of these comments, then I’ll unpack what they’re saying:

Sec. 1400.203 Joint Operations

COMMENT:

A more rigorous definition or measurable standard for active personal management is needed; too many people per entity are qualifying for payment eligibility based on only active personal management. However, the comments did not represent a consensus on what that standard should be. Use a 1000 hour eligibility (test) for an active contribution of management and labor combined. Require each actively engaged partner to work at least 1000 hours in proving labor or management, or engage in labor or management for hours equal to at least half those required by the share of the operation.

Define active management to include marketing, securing financing, supervising employees, and scheduling field activities.

Close the potential loopholes and end unlimited payments to the nation’s largest farms. Require a person to either work half time on a farm or provide half the labor or management to qualify as an active farmer. The ‘‘actively engaged’’ issue is the biggest potential loophole of all. Megafarms with investor partners use this potential loophole to collect unlimited payments.

The excess payments gained from the actively engaged potential loopholes allow megafarms to outbid smaller farmers and beginning farmers for land, leading to the demise of family farming. This potential loophole is strangling the economic future of rural communities and choking off farm entry for the next generation.


RESPONSE:

As indicated previously, the definition of what constitutes a significant contribution is provided by regulation, not by statute and, therefore, could be changed. We recognize the difficulty in determining the significance of a management contribution under the current definition and the appeal of a measurable, quantifiable standard. However, unlike labor, the significance of a management contribution is not appropriately measured by the amount of time a person spends doing the claimed contribution. The current regulatory definition of a significant contribution of active personal management has been in effect for over 20 years; Congress has not mandated a more restrictive definition during that time, including in the 2008 Farm Bill. However, we are currently exploring whether the current definition could be amended in a manner that would be fair, equitable, and enhance program integrity. Therefore, no changes were made at this time as the result of this comment and other related comments.

Got all that? Here’s what they’re saying in their response:

As indicated previously, the definition of what constitutes a significant contribution is provided by regulation, not by statute and, therefore, could be changed. We recognize the difficulty in determining the significance of a management contribution under the current definition and the appeal of a measurable, quantifiable standard.

So the USDA has the power to change the loophole and doesn’t need an act of Congress. That answers that. They seem to agree that the loophole should be changed (“the appeal of a measurable, quantifiable standard”).

However, unlike labor, the significance of a management contribution is not appropriately measured by the amount of time a person spends doing the claimed contribution. The current regulatory definition of a significant contribution of active personal management has been in effect for over 20 years.

Here they’re saying it’s a hard problem to solve without causing other problems. In the rest of the document, they talk a lot about how spouses of farmers might be affected by an “actively engaged in farming” rule-change, and it’s not clear how much wiggle room they have.

Congress has not mandated a more restrictive definition during that time, including in the 2008 Farm Bill.

Now they’re punting the question to Congress, even though it’s within the USDA’s power to make some kind of change, so this line is a bit of a cop-out. But then again, maybe Congress should just take it up and make the rule change permanent instead of leaving it up to each new presidential administration to fiddle around with things. (Hint hint, more activism and lobbying from vegans kthx.)

However, we are currently exploring whether the current definition could be amended in a manner that would be fair, equitable, and enhance program integrity.

Here’s the crux of it. Do you believe that they’re working on the loophole to try and close it for the next round of rule changes, or do you believe it’s a brush off? And do you believe the loophole should be closed by the USDA, or by Congress? Questions, questions.

From what I can see, there are a lot of issues going on. Has the USDA sold out to corporate farms, or are they honestly trying to grapple with a complex issue without creating unintended consequences for family members of farmers? And are they trying to avoid a separation of powers problem by defining something further than the Farm Bill allows, or are they just being a bunch of lame-brains?

I don’t really have any conclusions here, just more questions, so…I report, you decide!

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