Congress has passed bipartisan legislation aimed at righting a USDA misinterpretation of the farm bill base acre provision. Until the provision was suspended for a year by the congressional action, USDA had required producers to have a minimum of 10 base acres to receive program benefits.

H.R. 6849, as amended by the Senate, makes technical corrections to the permanent crop disaster program included in the 2008 farm bill. It also temporarily reverses the USDA’s published notice regarding the farm bill’s 10 base-acre provision, which would have denied farm program benefits to hundreds of thousands of producers nationwide by refusing to allow for the aggregation of small base acreage.

“This is good news for thousands of farmers who rent or lease smaller tracks of land for their farms,” said North Carolina Rep. Bob Etheridge. ”It allows farmers to continue to receive payments for the work they do on small farms, and ensures that our rural economy stays strong. I will begin working immediately to provide a permanent solution to the USDA’s extremely narrow interpretation of the 10 base-acre provision.”

Senators continued to express belief the farm bill explicitly lays out congressional intent, but said they were pushing for this short-term relief so small farmers are not caught in the cross-fire. Also included in the legislation were technical corrections to the permanent disaster assistance program of the farm bill.

The legislation also extends the 2008 crop year signup until Nov. 14, or 45 days after enactment for direct and counter-cyclical payments. The bill ensures that no penalty to benefits can be assessed by the USDA against producers who fell into the 10-acre prohibition for failure to submit reports or timely compliance with other program requirements if using the extended signup period.

The bill also contains clarifications on various aspects of the new standing disaster assistance program, mostly having to do with how minor acreages and grazing land are supposed to be treated under the program. There is also a newly established minimum loss threshold under the program, requiring there be a physical loss of at least 10 percent of one crop on the farm to qualify for payments. This was done to avoid having farmers qualify for payments only due to a reduction in prices.

“This is a common-sense, short-term fix that will protect small farms in Iowa and around the country,” said Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. “USDA seems intent in implementing that farm bill despite the clear legislative directive to consider the sum of all base acres on the farm and the further instruction in the statement of managers. This action is needed to prevent payments from being eliminated.”

“The farm bill clearly states our intent when we wrote the law to aggregate land of less than 10 acres and the USDA has obviously decided to ignore congressional intent,” Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley said. ”We’ll need to address this again next year, but at least for this crop year small farmers will have some certainty regarding their eligibility for a safety net.”

Georgia Sen. Saxby Chambliss said he was “pleased the Senate has approved this measure and took action to protect the interests of our producers, particularly our smaller producers. Unfortunately a misinterpretation by USDA has made this fix necessary. Thankfully, this bill will allow us to continue to work on a permanent solution to this problem while maintaining the eligibility of thousands of active farmers who may need to reconstitute or aggregate their farms.”

e-mail: dbennett@farmpress.com