The chairman and two high-ranking members of the Senate Agriculture Committee are seeking to clarify the 2008 farm bill so farmers can make changes in their farming operations and continue to receive farm program payments.

Legislation introduced by Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa; the chairman, and Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., the committee’s ranking member, would require USDA to allow farmers to combine operations smaller than 10 acres for farm program payment purposes.

The Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008 bars USDA from making farm program payments to farms with less than 10 acres. USDA — mistakenly, the senators say — is using the language to forbid farmers from combining farms into operations large enough to avert the 10-acre limit.

“USDA wants to freeze a moment in time rather than include all the base acres on the farm at the time of program sign up,” said Harkin. “That not only goes against the new farm bill as written, but USDA seems intent on going out of the way to cut off payments that would be made if a farmer were allowed to combine bases on farms.”

Harkin, Grassley and Chambliss say the legislation is necessary “so small farmers aren’t caught in the cross-fire during the short-term,” as Harkin noted.

USDA’s interpretation would eliminate producers from receiving direct, counter-cyclical, or average crop revenue election or ACRE payments, if the farm is 10 acres or less, the senators said. “The manager’s report of the farm bill specifically included language to ensure that small farm acreages could be aggregated to allow for farm program payments if the sum of the acres is over 10,” Harkin said.

“It’s unfortunate that it’s come to this,” said Grassley. “The farm bill clearly states our intent when we wrote the law. “We can’t let the Department of Agriculture ignore congressional intent and put the burden on small farmers. They need a safety net now.”

“USDA’s failure to follow congressional intent has forced us to introduce a measure to ensure that the 10-acre or less provision is implemented as Congress intended,” said Chambliss. “Thousands of active farmers are depending on reconstitution and aggregation to maintain their eligibility. The Department’s conscious disregard of congressional intent, especially when it is so clearly expressed in the conference report, is unfortunate and does not bode well for future cooperation.”

Specifically, the legislation suspends for crop years 2008 and 2009 the provision of the farm bill that prohibits direct, counter-cyclical, and ACRE payments on commodities and peanuts if the sum of the base acres on the farm is 10 acres or less.

(The House Agriculture Committee also has approved a bill that would suspend the 10-acre rule for the 2008 and 2009 crop years, “giving us time to decide how to correct the problem for later years,” says Committee Chairman Colin Peterson, D-Minn.)

The Senate legislation also extends the 2008 crop year signup until Dec. 31, 2008 for direct and counter-cyclical payments. The bill ensures that no penalty to benefits can be assessed by USDA against producers who fell into this 10-acre prohibition for failure to submit reports or timely comply with other program requirements if using the extended sign up period.

Senators who cosponsored the bill along with Grassley, Harkin and Chambliss were Senators Herb Kohl of Wisconsin, Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Larry Craig of Idaho, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, Mike Crapo of Idaho, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Susan Collins of Maine, Hillary Clinton of New York, Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina and Max Baucus of Montana.

e-mail: flaws@farmpress.com