Agriculture's Set-Aside Programs Should Be Improved

CED-80-9: Published: Jan 11, 1980. Publicly Released: Jan 11, 1980.

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The Department of Agriculture's wheat and feed grain set-aside programs are intended to reduce expected surpluses of particular crops. In return for taking acreage out of production, producers are eligible for commodity loans and purchases as well as deficiency, disaster, and diversion payments. A review of producer compliance with the programs' requirements identified certain areas in which the effectiveness of the programs could be improved.

Most producers in the counties reviewed complied with the set-aside requirements. However, some were allowed to receive program benefits without fulfilling these requirements. County Agriculture Department officials and local, farmer elected, county committees were responsible for determining compliance. To participate in the programs, producers certified their planted and set-aside acres. County Agricultural officials were responsible for determining the accuracy of the certificates. Producers who certified their acreage inaccurately could be denied participation in the program, or if they had acted in good faith, assessed a monetary penalty. The programs were implemented in a short time and when staffing at the county offices was low. Criteria for good faith determinations were vague. As a result, the committees generally found that producers had acted in good faith even when the reasons given did not justify allowing them to ramain in the programs. Monetary penalties were not always applied when they should have been, were not applied consistently, and were costly to administer. A stricter certification and compliance program was needed to ensure compliance, simplify program administration, and reduce county office workload. Land to be set-aside should have been part of a farm's normal crop acreage. However, GAO found several cases where the acreages did not represent the farm's normal plantings, were established contrary to instructions, or were otherwise questionable.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of the Department of Agriculture should establish a strict compliance program under which producers who incorrectly certify their acreages would be denied program participation unless they are granted relief through a State and/or national appeal process, and specifically define the circumstances in which relief would be granted. This would take the place of good faith determinations and monetary penalties. In addition, the Secretary should: revise procedures to require that the adequacy of set-aside covers be documented both at the time of certification and at the time of farm inspection and that followup visits to correct any identified problems be made and documented; revise procedures to increase the number of visits made to farms having small grains as cover on set-aside acres to ensure that the cover crop is clipped prior to seed formation; and have county offices use aerial observation to assist in determining compliance where feasible and cost effective, but limit wheat and feed grain determinations, for the most part, to a random sample of farms plus other required checks. The Secretary should require the Administrator of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service to reestablish normal crop acreages for all wheat and feed grain farms based on recent planting histories, such as those for 1977, 1978, and 1979, and ensure that all changes to established normal crop acreages are properly supported and documented and obtain annual planting data on all farms using producer certifications.

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