Farmers all over the Mid-South were breathing a big sigh of relief last week after Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack announced that USDA had rescinded a rule terminating base acres on federal land.

As a result of Vilsack’s action, farmers who lease federal land are again considered eligible to receive payments under the direct and counter-cyclical program on federal land with base acres.

“Terminating base acres on federally-owned cropland would have hurt farmers across the United States and eroded the safety net for farmers and ranchers,” said Vilsack. “In keeping with President Obama’s commitment to American agriculture, we have decided to rescind this rule.”

This decision rescinds the part of the Dec. 23, 2008, DCP final rule which directed that beginning in crop year 2009, producers who leased federal land would no longer be eligible for DCP payments authorized under the 2008 farm bill.

A few weeks after receiving notice of the rule, stunned farmers began organizing an effort that eventually paid off.

Bill Gillon, general counsel for the National Cotton Council, said, “Affected producers in Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama and Tennessee all worked together to make their concerns known to their representatives. The local Farm Bureau offices and Ducks Unlimited were also involved heavily. Congressional representatives and senators kept up their efforts with Secretary Vilsack to try and get this rule reversed.

“The difficult part of this was that the outgoing administration just dropped this into the middle of its implementation of the 2008 farm bill pretty much as they were going out the door. They saddled the new administration with it in the middle of the transition process.

“The new secretary had to figure this issue out along with all the other things a secretary has to do, with a very limited staff. It took time, and it took persistence and it’s a testament to this secretary that they stuck with it and they reviewed all those actions by the outgoing administration that were not in the best interests of farmers.”

Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark, whose office pushed for repeal of the rule, said, “Congress never intended to give USDA the authority to eliminate all federal base acres. The decision to overturn this harmful rule is critically important during these difficult economic times.

“It helps ensure that a number of our growers who farm federal land will continue to produce an abundant, safe domestic supply of food and fiber. This is an issue I’ve raised with the secretary and undersecretaries that have come through the Senate Agriculture Committee confirmation process. I commend the Obama administration for listening to Congress on this issue and for choosing to overturn this very harmful regulation developed under the previous administration.”

“I’m just on Cloud Nine,” said Joyce Whaley, who organized Mid-South farmer opposition to the rule. She said Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., Rep. Travis Childers, D-Miss., Jenny Materio, senior legislative assistant for Childers, Bill Gillon “and others have worked tirelessly on this.”

“There were a lot of farmers getting ready to turn back their leases because they couldn’t make it work,” said Whaley, who with her husband, David, lease federally owned land in Mississippi. “And a lot of farmers went on with operations purely out of faith that things would work out. This will make a huge difference in their operations. For us, it’s going to enable us to stay in business. We were looking at downsizing and laying off farmhands.”

The rule would have impacted more than just farmers, Whaley said. “It would have hurt our community as well. Factories are closing down and we’re still here putting money back into the economy and still hiring. It means a lot to others to keep this going, not just us.”

Whaley said deciding to organize the opposition effort was a no-brainer. “A lot of these producers on federal lands built these bases, and felt like it was wrong for them to be taken away. But it is nice to know that the political system works, and you are heard. There was a two-week period there when I thought the effort was dying. But they were working on it all along.”

“This announcement restores the farm safety net for producers who farm federal lands,” said Bob Stallman, American Farm Bureau Federation president. “The previous rule would have had a two-fold impact of hurting farmers while critically hindering wildlife protection.”

Stallman was referring to producers like Willie Oxner, who operates Dixie Farms, located in the Cache River National Wildlife Refuge in Arkansas. Oxner participates in the Refuge Cooperative Farming Program administered by USFWS. His quarter share lease agreement with USFWS requires that Oxner leave one-fourth of his crop unharvested for duck food.

In rice alone, this amounts to over 500,000 pounds of duck food annually, plus whatever is lost due to harvesting and spillage and from other crops. As part of the lease agreement, Oxner manages a moist soil habitat for ducks and maintains and repairs equipment owned by Fish and Wildlife.

Oxner said the decision to rescind the rule will allow him to immediately sign a new lease with USFWS and begin ground preparation in a timely manner for the 2009 season. “I just can’t thank the people who worked on this enough. This is great news for me, my family, my brother and all the farmhands we have working for us.”

Willie’s brother, Michael, who farms in the nearby Bald Knob National Wildlife Refuge, says government subsidies he receives help offset expenses he incurs for non-crop responsibilities he has on the refuge. Oxner regularly pumps water from the nearby Red River into crop fields, cypress swamps and fishing lakes. “We route water on this farm for 8 miles.”

“Rescinding this rule benefits both America’s farming families and our wildlife and waterfowl,” added Dan Wrinn, director of public policy for Ducks Unlimited. “Thousands of acres of waterfowl habitat will continue to be available to the birds when they reach their wintering grounds next fall.”

According to a news release from the AFBF, the provision impacted 34 states and represented more than $5.5 million per year in lost direct payments, as well as an unknown amount of counter-cyclical payments.

“Farmers’ ability to lease federal lands provides vital advantages for the agriculture industry, as well as state and local governments, and I am extremely pleased about USDA’s decision,” said Rep. Travis Childers, D-Miss.

“Eliminating base acres would have hurt many rural communities in the First Congressional District and throughout Mississippi at a time when state and local governments are already facing severe financial stress. The action will allow farmers and producers in north Mississippi to renew their leases, and will prevent detrimental consequences for rural communities.”

Earlier this year,. Childers sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Vilsack discussing the negative implications of the rule and urging him to take action to help farmers and producers decide whether or not to renew their current leases on these lands.

“I’m pleased to see this misguided rule, first enacted under President Bush, rescinded,” said Rep. Marion Berry, D-Ark. “I will continue to oppose all mid-stream changes to the five-year agreement that Congress made with American farm families with the 2008 farm bill.”

The first time Mid-South farmers heard about the federal lands rule was a few days after Christmas 2008 when they received letters stating that crop bases on cropland leased from a federal agency would be terminated for the 2009 season, effectively eliminating subsidy payments on the land.

The letter included a grandfather clause that allowed the bases to continue for lease agreements signed prior to Dec. 23, 2008. But the letter came too late for many farmers to take advantage of the clause.

e-mail: erobinson@farmpress.com