Judge says field leveling didn't render farmer ineligible for subsidies

By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI

Capital Press

A California rice grower does not have to repay more than $170,000 in federal farm subsidies for laser leveling his farmland.

The USDA had deemed the action a conversion of wetlands prohibited by farm subsidy rules, but a federal judge has overturned the agency's decision.

Robert Koshman of Placer County, Calif., laser leveled two fields in 2002 and 2003 that USDA had previously found to contain 34 acres of wetlands.

Laser leveling improves rice crop uniformity, increases water efficiency and reduces weeds.

Koshman had previously asked the agency for permission to level the fields, which had been farmed since the 1950s, but was warned the action could create a "converted wetland" that would render him ineligible for subsidies, the ruling said.

Upon learning of the leveling, the USDA ordered the farm to refund more than $170,000 in benefits paid out after 2002.

That decision was ultimately upheld by the agency after several administrative challenges, with USDA finding that Koshman violated farm subsidy rules by making the land "more farmable."

U.S. District Judge Kimberly Mueller in Sacramento has rejected that determination, saying the agency's interpretation of "converted wetland" conflicts with farm subsidy law.

The agency is prohibited from paying subsidies to farmers who converted wetlands for farm production, but Congress allowed growers to continue cultivating wetlands that were farmed before that law was enacted in 1985.

The provision was included in that year's farm bill to discourage further draining or filling of wetlands.

Mueller has ruled that Koshman's fields were not converted wetlands because they were capable of commercially producing rice before the land was laser leveled.

A field is considered a converted wetland only if the manipulation made agriculture possible where it wasn't previously, she said.

Attorneys representing Koshman and the federal government declined to comment on the case.

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