Business

Feds investigate 21 farmers

The U.S. Attorney’s Office is investigating a group of Eastern Washington farmers suspected of gaming a federal program that pays for good conservation practices.

The 21 grain farmers possibly defrauding the Natural Resources Conservation Service have had to pay the federal agency $564,197 in reimbursements and costs. Of the 21, seven farmers mediated settlements with the NRCS and others lost appeals.

The problems could have been a blow to the Conservation Security Program, a taxpayer-funded initiative launched by the 2002 Farm Bill that pays farmers for environmental practices such as using less fertilizer and pesticides.

A review determined that farmers cheated on their applications, some submitting false or altered soil samples in an attempt to reap federal dollars.

When the NRCS expanded its review, six more farmers were caught.

Dave Brown, an assistant state conservationist overseeing programs, said the records have been turned over to federal authorities in Spokane to investigate whether the farmers committed crimes.

The agency is withholding the names of the 21 farmers, citing the criminal investigation and the federal Privacy Act.

Hundreds of farmers are participating in the program and the NRCS believes the problems have been rooted out and the integrity of CSP, preserved, said agency spokesman Ron Nichols.

In 2005, the NRCS awarded 273 Conservation Security Program contracts and paid farmers $4.5 million.

The farmers allegedly defrauding the government enrolled in CSP during 2005. All had their contracts terminated by State Conservationist Gus Hughbanks, though each can reapply for program participation in the future. None admitted guilt during their mediation and appeals.

The farmers were from the Upper Crab and Rock Creek watersheds, and the Upper Banks Lake watershed, Nichols said.

The program is available in all 50 states as the NRCS expands the number of eligible watersheds.

Brown said the episode is over for NRCS and the agency is ready to move on.

The CSP is different that the better-known Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers not to plant field crops.

The reserve program, run by the Farm Services Agency, was designed to idle erosion-prone acreage and land that was best suited as wildlife habitat. It had become increasingly popular as low grain prices made farming marginal. Some argue that the reserve program is a merely another farm subsidy for landowners that cuts into local tax collections and hurt rural businesses that depend on selling seed, chemicals, fuel and farm machinery.



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