What does it mean to farm? I'm not asking for a warm and wonderful recitation about the joys of raising a family, working with God's green Earth or any of those other emotional triggers that so many people who receive the calling feel. I'm talking about the legal definition that opens up Uncle Sam's deep pockets, the legal description that brings with it farm subsidies; checks in the mail totaling millions of dollars.
Last year, an ever more parsimonious Congress asked the U. S. Department of Agriculture to redefine what it means to be “actively engaged” in farming. Their proposal? Farms must document that their managers put in at least 500 hours of work annually to qualify. Calculating a laughably small 40 hour work week, a manager must work for a measly three months out of the year. A more serious time line would be a month-and-a-half.
When he announced the new definition in an official statement,, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said, “We want to make sure that farm program payments are going to the farmers and farm families that they are intended to help. The Farm Bill gave USDA the authority to limit farm program payments to individuals who are not actively engaged in the management of the farming operation on non-family farms. This helps close a loophole that has been taken advantage of by some larger joint ventures and general partnerships.”
Currently, it's difficult for USDA personnel to identify how much a person is actually involved in farming and people who have never visited a farm receive federal checks. For the first time, Vilsack's rule sets a limit to the number of a single farm's managers to just three. The big losers are general partnerships, in which multiple members share management, and non-family joint ventures, short-term business associations among individuals or entities.
As a provision of the last farm bill, though, Congress exempted family-owned businesses which make up most of our largest farms before they asked the USDA to issue the new rules. It was one of the few times in decades when most people could accuse our leaders of good thinking. The new definition applies to farm businesses that fall into that ugly old graffiti-on-a-church-wall 'factory farm' label some anti-ag groups love to use to define most of modern agriculture. It will end the good times for hobby farms managed in absentia by 'all hat, no cattle gentlemen farmers' and true corporate businesses that haven't been owned by a family in a generation or more.
As many as 1,400 operations might become ineligible, saving about $50 million over a three-year period. Nice money, but it doesn't even qualify as an unnoticeable rounding error in the federal budget. Now begins the fun part, though. Comments will be made and lobbyists will be paid. Let's see how well the new definition survives modern American politics which has become more like Big 10 football played without helmets: lots of noise, lots of head-banging, lots of money, little forward movement of the ball.