USDA begins releasing new version of farm payment data

USDA is releasing new farm program payment information that could help set the record straight about who actually receives a wide array of farm-related government payments and why.

Responding to a new Freedom of Information Act request, USDA has begun releasing information from the Farm Service Agency’s Permitted Entity File and is scheduled to start providing information from its Section 1614 Database in August.

While expressing concerns about possible violations of privacy rights from the disclosures, farm organizations say they believe the releases may help clear up misconceptions about farm program payments, including those created by the Environmental Working Group Web site.

“Especially given identity theft concerns, American students or senior citizens would not want their names splashed in a newspaper because they received school loans, grants or social security benefits, and our farm families should have the same reasonable expectation of privacy,” said Paul Combs, chairman of the USA Rice Producers Group.

“Nonetheless, the tracking of farm payment amounts will help conclusively prove that farm critics have been resorting to distortions and half-truths when the facts do not suit them.”

Last week’s release of payment information by USDA disclosed information from the Permitted Entity File, a mechanism created in the late 1970s to administer the then-new farm program payment limitation rules.

The PEF maintains records on the relationship between a parent entity and all embedded entities and individuals within them, but does not include information on how a parent entity distributes dollars among its members.

In the past, farmer-owned cooperatives have been singled out for negative newspaper articles and speeches on the floor of Congress because of millions of dollars in farm program payments – such as loan deficiency payments – that were actually passed on to members by the cooperatives.

Entities for farm program payment purposes can include corporations, joint stock companies, associations, limited partnerships, limited liability partnerships, limited liability companies, irrevocable trusts, revocable trusts, estates, charitable organizations or similar organizations, but not cooperatives.

The 1614 database information is being compiled in compliance with Section 1614 of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002. The 2002 farm bill says payments to farmers must be tracked directly to a person, rather than to a corporate structure, to ensure farmers are in compliance with limitations on farm payments.

When completed the database will include information about the allocation of direct and indirect benefits to entities and individuals receiving payments through entities.

USDA officials say the database will include benefits issued from October 2002 to March 2006 by the Farm Service Agency, the Natural Resources Conservation Service and other government agencies.

The Environmental Working Group has gained considerable notoriety since it began listing farm program payment recipients on its Web site in November 2004. The EWG claims it has received 54,655,850 hits on the Web site as of June 13.

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