AFBF calls on Perdue to reform NRCS programs

By Ashley Rice

The American Farm Bureau Federation is calling on Ag Secretary Sonny Perdue to reform USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service compliance programs.

In a five-page letter, AFBF highlighted an Indiana family farm that has been in a legal battle with USDA since the mid to late 1990s.

David and Rita Boucher removed a total of nine trees in the 1990s which occupied approximately 12/10,000ths of an acre. According to the court documentation, “…one could fill an area the size of a pickup truck bed by laying flat a slice from each of the nine trees’ trunks.” Later in 2002, a USDA representative visited the Boucher farm, and reported a potential wetland violation.

In the investigation and legal battle that ensued, USDA insisted the Boucher’s converted 2.8 acres of wetland into farmland and demanded they plant 300 trees per acre as compensation. Due to this USDA proclamation, the Boucher farm was ineligible for USDA benefits during that almost 20-year time period.

Just last month, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit ruled on the case in favor of the Boucher family:

“Since at least 1985, federal law and regulatory policy have tried to remove financial incentives for destruction of environmentally important wetlands. In this case, however, the record shows arbitrary and capricious action by the agency. The USDA repeatedly failed to follow applicable law and agency standards. It disregarded compelling evidence showing that the acreage in question never qualified as wetlands that could have been converted illegally into croplands. And the agency has kept shifting its explanations for treating the acreage as converted wetlands.”

The official AFBF letter to Perdue, which is signed by Zippy Duvall, AFBF president, cites additional legal cases that occurred between farmers and the USDA throughout the last 17 years. The letter also emphasizes that these cases are not “outliers,” but in many instances, farmers cannot afford to participate in a lengthy and costly leg­al battle with USDA over disagreements with NRCS compliance programs.

“Although the Boucher case is about an Indiana farm family, the fact pattern sounds frighteningly similar to many situations we hear about from our farmer members here in Illinois,” Lauren Lurkins, IFB director of environmental policy, told FarmWeek.

“The court identifies multiple problems with NRCS conservation compliance programs, including reliance on ‘woody vegetation,’ one-time observations of wetland criteria under irregular circumstances, changing agency rationale for wetland determinations, and evidentiary and burden of proof concerns on appeal. AFBF and state Farm Bureaus across the country look forward to working with USDA as we try to bring this program back to its original intent with a focus on due process afforded to farmers by Congress from the beginning.”