Farm program payment problems: Meeting in Edgeley seeks changes to farm bill calculations
EDGELEY, N.D. — About 150 people gathered here Tuesday to hear options regarding the Agriculture Risk Coverage - County program payments, which were denied to farmers in LaMoure and Logan counties last year.
“The reason you’re here is this is just wrong,” said Mike Brandenburg, Edgeley area farmer and Republican state representative who was one of the organizers of the event. “Farmers in Stutsman County received $60 per acre (for corn acres planted in 2014) and across the road (in LaMoure County), there was nothing.”
Brandenburg said farmers in LaMoure and Logan counties didn’t return enough surveys to the National Agricultural Statistics Service in the fall of 2014. The surveys were voluntary and not audited or verified.
When there was not enough data from the NASS surveys, the U.S. Department of Agriculture used other data including information from the Risk Management Agency or crop insurance, according to Martin Phipps, attorney for Phipps, Anderson, Deacon, LLP, a law firm from San Antonio, Texas. That resulted in a calculated average corn yield of 165 bushels per acre in LaMoure County for 2014. Brandenburg said that was between 15 and 20 bushels per acre higher than actual crop yields.
Phipps, Anderson, Deacon is one of the law firms seeking to represent farmers in possible litigation or lobbying of the USDA.
Phipps said the mix of statistics from multiple agencies was like comparing apples to oranges and the resulting differences in payments from county to county was “arbitrary and capricious,” meaning the decisions were not based on fact or reason.
The ARC-Co payment was new with the 2014 Farm Bill and designed to help farmers when prices or yields are reduced, Brandenburg said. The payments are calculated on county-wide averages with payments triggered when actual crop revenue is less than levels set by the program.
“You all got screwed and we all know it,” Phipps said, referring to the situation of the LaMoure County farmers. “Every state has this problem, North Dakota was the first to call (attorneys seeking assistance).”
The Phipps, Anderson, Deacon law firm has a series of meetings scheduled across North Dakota as well as with farmers in Indiana and Nebraska.
Other crops affected
Brandenburg said the problem is not isolated to the 2014 corn crop. He presented a map prepared by Kansas State University that projected 11 North Dakota counties, including Barnes and Stutsman, would not receive payments for wheat under the ARC-Co program for the 2015 crop year. The projections indicate LaMoure County wheat farmers could see a payment of $28 per acre and Kidder County farmers would receive $25 per acre.
Brandenburg said problems with payments could continue through 2018 when the current farm bill ends, if the methods of calculating the problems are not addressed.
James Lee, an attorney with the Lee Murphy Law Firm of Houston, Texas, said the problems all stem from the NASS survey.
“The NASS survey went out in October 2014 and they didn’t tell anyone how important it was,” he said. “Any reasonable person would say that stinks. Farmers didn’t make a selection of the farm program (they would participate in) until summer of 2015.”
Lee said attorneys would file lawsuits on behalf of a limited number of farmers against the USDA regarding the payments denied to farmers in LaMoure and Logan counties.
Other farmers were asked to participate in a pro bono lobbying contract. Those farmers would be asked to furnish actual information about their farm operations to be compared to the data generated by NASS and RMA.
The lobbying effort will work with USDA officials to change the way the farm bill is administered and how farm program payments are calculated rather than changing the farm bill, Lee said.
Trying to make those changes through a lobbying effort would be quicker than going through the court process, Lee said. He said he hoped to see the changes made next year.
Brandenburg, who has volunteered to be one of the farmers filing a lawsuit against the USDA, said forcing changes in how program payments are calculated is important.
“We can do something or do nothing,” he said. “We can stand up and get this fixed for the rest of the farm bill.”