Bill proposes farm forms go digital

A recently introduced bill would require the Agriculture Department to create an electronic filing and retrieval system so that farmers could submit required paperwork via the Internet instead of on paper.

Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) last month introduced the Farm Electronic Filing Report Act (H.R. 852) to decrease the amount of paperwork farmers must file by requiring the USDA to make it possible to file the same documents electronically.

Each year farmers must submit information about their farms, such as how many acres are used to grow crops and raise livestock, and how they are complying with the land conservation mandate. Farmers must fill out additional forms to apply for crop insurance.

"If farmers participate in the farm program, they must file paperwork on an annual basis about their farm," said Chris Guidry, legislative director for LaHood. "Now they have to go to the county office and stand in line for hours. This [system] would allow farmers to [file] from their home or office."

The adjustment should not be difficult for most farmers, Guidry said. A recent study showed that more than 72 percent of farmers who farm more than 500 acres have a PC. Overall, more than 55 percent of farmers surveyed had computers. "That's a significant number," Guidry said.

The Internal Revenue Service, the Commerce Department and the Labor Department all allow electronic filing, he said. "It's time the Agriculture Department gets with the program."

The bill also calls for the system to make available in electronic format for public access information on farm programs; quarterly trade, economic and production reports; and other similar information. It also would establish an optional electronic payment system for payments made to producers.

"We encourage electronic government - especially agencies making documents fully available electronically," said Dave Banisar, staff council for the Electronic Privacy Information Center. "This bill would seem to do some positive things in terms of requiring the agency to provide [immediate] access to information."

Banisar added, however, that the bill should keep electronic filing as an option for farmers rather than mandate it because many farmers still do not own a computer. "Electronic filing would pose a significant problem if that is the only way for farmers to file things," he said.

The intent of the legislation is to offer farmers a filing option, and it would not make any information available to the public that is not already public, Guidry said.

The USDA does not yet have a position on the bill and plans to wait to see what happens in committee, said Ira Hobbs, deputy chief information officer at the USDA. The bill, which has been referred to the House Committee on Agriculture, took the department by surprise, he said.

Such a system would be a welcome option for farmers, said Tom Thieding, spokesman for the Wisconsin Farm Bureau. Wisconsin farmers' Internet use has tripled over the last two years, with more than 30 percent of farmers now online, Thieding said.

"One thing [farmers] have always been asking for is streamlining the filing process," he said. "In particular, once they have information on a computer, they want to apply it and drop it in elsewhere. This will make it a lot easier and simpler for that."

The bill calls for the USDA to establish the electronic filing and retrieval system no later than 180 days after the bill is enacted.

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