Peterson calls proposal 'real reform'

WASHINGTON -- House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., wants the new farm bill to raise the amount of dollar value of sales a farmer needs to be included in the Census of Agriculture and save money by ending crop subsidies t...

WASHINGTON -- House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., wants the new farm bill to raise the amount of dollar value of sales a farmer needs to be included in the Census of Agriculture and save money by ending crop subsidies to landowners and farmers with fewer than 20 acres that qualify for government payments.

Peterson says the proposal would not eliminate eligibility for conservation programs, but small farm advocates and critics immediately denounced the proposals.

When Peterson and House Agriculture Committee ranking member Bob Goodlatte, R-Va., told reporters March 13 that they expect to write a farm bill with only the money in the current baseline, Peterson said that cutting out the direct and countercyclical payments to landowners with less than 20 acres of historic crop base would be a way to produce some savings that could be spent on other programs. Peterson did not say how many farmers and landowners would be affected or how much money would be saved.

Silencing critics

But Peterson also said the changes would make it harder for farm bill critics to charge that that most farmers don't get subsidies and that most of the subsidies go only to the biggest farmers. This reform, he said, would be "real" rather than one "ginned up" by farm critics.


Under current law, the census of Agriculture counts all farms with sales of $1,000 or more. Using that definition, the 2005 census counted 2.1 million farms. Peterson said farm bill critics have used that number to calculate that only a small percentage of farmers get subsidies. Peterson said he would propose that the Census count farms with only $50,000 in sales, but said he realized that other members and senators are unlikely to agree and that he would be willing to compromise on a $10,000 in sales standard.

Peterson noted that he does not think he should get the subsidies on hunting land he owns in Minnesota and said the 20-acre cutoff would eliminate the need for the landowner to go to the FSA office and for FSA to make the payment. The Environmental Working Group Web site shows that from 2003 and 2005, Peterson received $283 in benefits, including $264 in direct payments and $19 in countercyclical payments, on land he owns in Pennington, County, Minn.

"I don't think there is anybody out there who is going to make or break on that small of a base acreage," Peterson said.

Peterson's proposal probably would not affect fruit, vegetable and tree nut producers because they do not get crop subsidies, but it could affect small crop farmers. Peterson said that there would be a "carve out" for minority and socially disadvantaged farmers. An aide said it is unclear how women landowners and farmers would be affected.

Sending the wrong signal?

Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said Peterson's proposal "would be devastating for beginning farmers," particularly organic farmers. "We have for years encouraged new farmers to start slowly, don't take on too much debt, keep the off-farm job while you build your operation, gain sufficient experience before purchasing land, and so on," Hoefner said. "To turn around and then say 'Oh, and by the way, while you do so you will no longer count as a farmer' would be bad policy and send the wrong signal."

Peterson countered that the House farm bill has "for the first time a workable program for beginning farmers. Having them identified as farmers is irrelevant if there are no programs to help them."

Kathy Ozer of the National Family Farm Coalition said her group is worried that dairy farmers with small corn acreages would be cut off from their subsides and also said she was worried about the potential for an impact on dairy programs.


Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group said, "This proposal to kick small farms out of the census or subsidy system because they are small would not silence the Environmental Working Group on questions of fairness and equity in federal farm programs.

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