Farmers who have been frustrated by USDA’s refusal to allow them to reconstitute their operations — no matter how small — to continue to receive farm program payments on all their acres may soon get some relief.

The House Agriculture Committee approved a bill to suspend for the 2008 and 2009 crop years a provision in the Food, Conservation and Energy Act that requires producers to have a minimum of 10 base acres to receive program benefits. USDA has told operators they could not combine farms to avoid the rule.

“The Department’s notice is a substantial change from what was in place prior to the most recent farm bill and runs contrary to what Congress intended when it wrote this provision and passed the bill,” said Committee Chairman Collin C. Peterson, D-Minn.

“This will protect the farm safety net for producers while giving us time to decide how to correct the problem for later years.”

Ranking Member Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., and most Republican members of the committee supported the move.

“I commend the Chairman for urgently addressing this issue,” he said. “I support this bill because it protects thousands of farmers who would be adversely affected by the USDA’s interpretation of this provision in the farm bill.”

The National Farmers Union and other farm organizations also praised committee members for taking the action, thus ensuring producers who qualify for farm programs would be able to continue to participate.

“The Department's interpretation will exclude a significant number of producers from participating in commodity programs that Congress clearly expected would retain program eligibility,” the NFU board of directors said in a letter to Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, asking him to change the USDA’s position.

The Committee held a business meeting Thursday (Sept. 18) to review H.R. 6849, which would have permanently allowed farmers to combine base acres from multiple working farms to meet the 10-base-acre minimum established in the farm bill.

Chairman Peterson introduced a substitute amendment that suspended the entire 10-acre provision for two years. That amendment, which was adopted by the Committee, provides a temporary, less expensive solution to the situation and is fully offset in order to meet the pay-as-you-go requirements the Democratic-controlled House is operating under.

With Congress only in session for one more week, farm groups urged both the House and Senate to quickly pass the bill and send it to President Bush for his signature.

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