Planting Flexibility for Fruits & Vegetables
Commodity program participants are permitted to plant part of their acreage to alternative crops or pasture for livestock without sacrificing payments. The movement toward this type of flexibility began in earnest with the flexibility provisions for diversified sustainable agriculture farmers through the special Integrated Farm Management program option in the 1990 Farm Bill and then became more comprehensive with the across-the-board planting flexibility features for all farmers in the 1996 Farm Bill. However, there are major restrictions on planting fruits and vegetables.
Under current rules, farm program participants can plant up to 100 percent of their total contract acreage to any crop, except for limitations on fruits, vegetables and wild rice. Unlimited haying and grazing and planting and harvesting of alfalfa and other forage crops are permitted with no reduction in payments. Planting of fruits, vegetables (excluding mung beans, lentils, and dry peas) and wild rice on contract acres, is prohibited unless the producer or the farm has a history of planting fruits and vegetables or wild rice. If the producer does have such a history, planting is allowed but payments are reduced acre-for-acre. Double cropping of fruits and vegetables is permitted without loss of payments only if there is a history of such double cropping in the region.
The adoption of planting flexibility was important to farmers utilizing sustainable farming methods. Producers who for environmental, health or economic reasons were adopting diversified resource-conserving crop rotations or were adding grass-based livestock production with continuing grain production activities found themselves enormously disadvantaged by the traditional commodity program structure. As these farmers added forages and soil-building crops to their rotations or converted marginal or hilly crop acres to grass-based production systems — all very positive practices for the environment — they lost government payments. The advent of planting flexibility rules did not correct for the long-term erosion of program “base acres” and reduced payments suffered by sustainable and organic producers over the years, but it at least provided for a prospective elimination of a significant barrier to the adoption of more sustainable and diversified systems.
The general prohibition on planting fruits and vegetables remains, however, and planting flexibility is still not absolute. Brazil successfully challenged US commodity programs at the World Trade Organization (WTO) on this point, obtaining a ruling that US direct payments may no longer be classified as non-trade distorting under world trade rules, and are subject to limitations that apply to trade-distorting subsidies. Closer to home, an increasing number of farmers in major commodity growing areas of the country are interested in converting some or all of their farms to fruit or vegetable production for the burgeoning market for fresh, local, healthy food but are prohibited from doing so.
2008 Farm Bill Changes
The 2008 Farm Bill retains the planting flexibility rules essentially unchanged from the previous two farm bills. Congress considered but did not adopt any major changes to the fruit and vegetable planting flexibility. An outright removal of the prohibition (a “no prohibition but no payments” proposal) did not advance very far at all in the farm bill process. A more limited proposal to allow up to 25 acres per farming operation to be planted, without payment, to fruits or vegetables solely for the local, fresh market received some consideration but also did not advance far. Both proposals and other variations on them were strongly opposed by the major fruit and vegetable commodity organizations.
The new bill does include a pilot program to allow the production without payment of cucumbers, green peas, lima beans, pumpkins, snap beans, sweet corn, and tomatoes for processing (not fresh), provided that all the acreage in the pilot program is under contract to a canning or processing company. The pilot will run from 2009 through 2012 on a limited number of acres in 7 states as follows:
Illinois – 9,000 acres
Indiana – 9,000 acres
Iowa – 1,000 acres
Michigan – 9,000 acres
Minnesota – 34,000 acres
Ohio – 4,000 acres
Wisconsin – 9,000 acres
Section 1107 of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act (FCEA) of 2008 contains the planting flexibility provisions, to be codified at 7 U.S.C. Section 8717.
There are no commodity program payments made on acres participating in the pilot project and therefore no cost for the pilot. Instead, the pilot program is expected to save a modest amount of money, estimated at a savings of about $2 million a year.
The basic planting flexibility rules will continue unchanged. The pilot program will be available starting in 2009 to farmers in the pilot states who have contracts with processors for production of one or more of the itemized pilot commodities.
USDA Contact Information
The Farm Service Agency is the USDA agency responsible for administering and managing commodity programs, through a network of federal, state, and county offices.
For more information about the commodity programs, visit the FSA website: http://www.fsa.usda.gov/.
Dan McGlynn, Deputy Director of Production, Emergencies, and Compliance Division, Farm Service Agency, firstname.lastname@example.org, 202-720-3464.