Large farms still need safety net, ag chairman says
By JERRY HAGSTROM
For the Capital Press
LUBBOCK, Texas -- House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said he would like to eliminate all limitations on government payments to farmers due to their size of payments or incomes.
At a hearing here May 17 on the 2012 Farm Bill several witnesses complained about the way Congress had written and USDA has implemented the 2008 Farm Bill's rules on payment limitations.
"I hope we can make changes so we don't have to have payment limits in the future," Peterson told reporters afterward.
Peterson said that he is "all for local foods and organic" production and that big farms "should be treated equally" with small farmers in getting payments. Noting that most of the food produced in the United States comes from the 300,000 to 350,000 biggest farms, Peterson said those operations still need a safety net.
"We have wasted so much time on this payment limits thing," Peterson said. "It's political correctness run amuck. As far as I am concerned there shouldn't be any payment limits. I am for any farm that makes economic sense and a safety net that follows (the size of) production."
At the hearing, Lamb County, Texas, farmer Brad Heffington testified against the limit on the amount of program benefits that can flow through a corporation. He said Congress has unfairly penalized farmers who use a corporation for legitimate business or estate planning reasons.
"The corporation has been demonized in this country," by people pushing payment limits, Peterson said. "That's completely baloney."
Peterson said when he was a practicing certified public accountant he had farmer clients who were "family farmers" seeking the best structure for their businesses.
The Environmental Working Group has complained that the Obama administration's recent release of farm subsidy data by individual was not as complete as the information the Bush administration released. Congress changed the law to say that USDA could decide whether to aggregate all payments under individual names and the Obama administration chose not to spend the money to do it.
"I have no problem with the way (the Obama administration) has handled it," Peterson said.
Peterson also proposed changing the definition of a farm in USDA's Agricultural Census from an operation with $1,000 in farm product sales to a higher level of production.
Using that Census data, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack charged that the vast majority of farmers get most of their income off the farm and need more help, but Peterson said he considers that discussion and the payment limits issue "a distraction."
Some analysts have said that defining a farmer to include those with small production leads to broader political support for the farm program and that basing policy more on the needs of the big farmers would make it harder to pass the bill.
"It's not about helping farmers but about providing adequate food for the country and the world," Peterson said. "If you didn't have that system, people with deep pockets would end up farming the country. We do not want to lose independent farmers."