SALEM, Ohio — The U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington D.C. has handed down a ruling that required USDA’s Farm Service Agency to release information about farming operations to Multi Ag Media, a Chicago marketing firm.
The ruling was made Feb. 15 and the data was released April 28.
FSA released the information in response to a Freedom of Information Act filed by the marketing firm in July 2005. The agency originally denied the request, saying it “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.”
In 2006, the U.S. district court upheld FSA’s denial. But a 2-1 decision from the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed the lower court. The appeals court said the farming information in question would not violate farmers’ privacy if released.
The data released includes FSA information for individual farms and family-owned operations.
Kent Politsch, chief of FSA’s public relations branch, said the information was released in a database file that contains only numbers to identify things like states, counties and tracts of land. The database does not contain any producer names or locations.
“It’s just a string of digits,” Politsch said.
The database wouldn’t mean much to the average person, he added, although specific information could be gleaned through a complicated deciphering process.
The information released to Multi Ag Media includes the items listed on a producer’s farm compliance record, such as: planting date; reported acreage; official acreage measurements; insurance coverage; type of crop; irrigation plans; intended use of crop; and crop status, including double crop program acreage, experimental, repeat crop acreage, prevented planting or failed crop.
Farm Field Common Land Unit information released includes digitized farm field boundaries, classified as farm and/or field boundaries, farm numbers, field numbers, tract numbers and acres at specific locations using spatial attributes and coordinates.
The database contains information about farms throughout the country.
Glenda Ward, executive director of the Columbiana and Mahoning county FSA, said her office has always made an effort to keep producer information private.
“We want to keep their information confidential and this whole lawsuit really hurts,” she said.
Ward added that the Columbiana and Mahoning county office is rarely petitioned for such data.
Cheryl Hinton, Freedom of Information Act officer for the Ohio FSA, also said the information collected by the agency has historically been kept private.
“It’s data that we have typically, in the past, protected,” she said.
Part of the case may have rested on the premise that farm program payments come from taxpayer dollars, Hinton added. With tax money backing the programs, there’s always the question of the public’s right to know.
Hinton said she wasn’t sure how the ruling would affect producer participation in FSA programs.