Passage of a Senate bill introduced Wednesday would continue to tighten the noose around farm program payments. The proposed legislation would place a hard cap on farm payments an individual farmer could receive in a year and, sponsors say, close “long-abused and well-documented loopholes in the farm payment program.”

Introduced by Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley and South Dakota Sen. Tim Johnson, the payment limits bill sets a hard cap for farm payments of $250,000 per married couple and seeks to keep non-farmers from qualifying for federal farm payments.

The bill is sponsored also by Ohio Sen. Sherrod Brown, New York Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, Wyoming Sen. Mike Enzi, Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin, and Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson.

Grassley and Johnson had introduced similar legislation earlier this Congress, but wanted to be sure the legislative text would accommodate any type of safety-net program adopted in a new farm and nutrition bill. This is particularly important in light of the growing prospect that direct payments are unlikely to be included in a farm and nutrition bill.

“A strong safety net is critical to ensuring a safe and affordable food supply,” said Grassley. “In order to maintain that safety net, we can’t have the mentality of the past where the government looked the other way and allowed people with no connection to the farm to take farm payments. It’s unacceptable that small- and medium-sized farmers get so little of the very program that was created to help them.”

Scroll down to read Grassley’s comments when introducing the bill.

“The farm safety net was designed to help family farmers, but it has increasingly led to a windfall for owners of our nation’s largest farms. Congress should act to close the loopholes and better target payments to our small and mid-sized family farmers. This legislation represents our best chance to move forward with reforms as consideration of the farm bill continues,” said Johnson.

Specifically, the new Grassley-Johnson payment limits bill has a hard cap on marketing loan gains of $75,000 ($150,000 for a couple). The remainder of the payment limit would be a cap on the total amount a farmer can receive in safety-net payments in general. For instance, if the Congress were to adopt a shallow loss program, the Grassley-Johnson bill would set a limit of $50,000 ($100,000 for a couple) that a farmer could receive.

In addition, the bill closes loopholes that allow people with ties to the farmland that consist of a conference call and nothing else. The bill sets a measurable standard for someone to qualify as actively engaged in farming by providing management for the operation, and the bill provides an exception for farming operations where there is only one manager of the farm. This exception should help the USDA administer the standard.

In a statement released Wednesday, the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition said the bill “will restore integrity and fiscal responsibility to federal farm policy during this time of budgetary constraints, and NSAC will be advocating for its inclusion in the 2012 farm bill.”

The bill is “absolutely critical to targeting the expected $5 billion a year in 2012 farm bill farm payments to individuals actively involved in farming, with reasonable caps,” said Juli Obudzinski, policy associate at the NSAC. “The current distribution of farm payments, with mega payments to mega farms and absentee passive investors, contributes to farm consolidation and the demise of family farms. The 2012 farm bill should put an end to this abuse.

“NSAC commends Sens. Grassley and Johnson for introducing this fiscally-responsible and common-sense piece of legislation. This bill will ensure that taxpayer dollars are well spent by targeting farm payments to family farmers. The bill will save money and also allow for targeted reinvestment in rural economies, beginning farmers, and agricultural research.”

The National Farmers Union also backed the bill.

“Farm bill programs are designed to help protect farmers in times of need, not to make farmers and ranchers rich,” said NFU President Roger Johnson. “The Grassley-Johnson bill strengthens the definition of ‘actively engaged in farming’ by requiring substantial active management and/or personal labor on the farm operation.

“Directing farm program benefits so that they meet the reasonable needs of family farmers would reduce government costs while furthering the sustainability of our family farms, our rural communities and our natural resources. This bill helps to direct where farm payments are going and ensure that they are going only to those who are active on farms and ranches. I encourage Congress to pass this fiscally responsible piece of legislation as soon as possible.”