While there is a move on Capitol Hill to limit commodity program payments, three Senators want secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to ensure that farm commodity program payment eligibility rules contain clear standards for measuring whether a person is actively engaged in farming and thus eligible to receive payments. In a letter to the Secretary, Senators Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, and Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., asked USDA to make certain that an interim rule published in the Federal Register does not undermine the intention of this provision.
Under previously existing USDA rules, individuals and entities have been able to qualify for payments on the basis of minimal, and sometimes questionable, management contributions to the operation, which may amount to little more than occasionally joining telephone conference calls. The 2008 farm bill requires a participant to make significant contributions of capital, equipment or land in addition to personal labor or active personal management.
The General Accounting Office has recommended that USDA develop measurable standards. The interim rule only requires regular and substantial participation that is independent and separate from the contributions of other partners or participants. The Senators say that unless the local Farm Service Agency offices rigorously implement the active personal management test, the interim rule would leave in place a gaping loophole that may allow 'conference call farmers' and the farming operations with which they are associated to qualify for unlimited payments.