by Sarah McCarthy
Everyone makes mistakes—though everyone doesn’t have to pay $100,922.26 for making one. This is, however, what Whitman College had to pay back to the Farm Service Agency, due to a miscommunication regarding its use of one of the farms it owns in Umatilla County.
Whitman owns 15 farms in Southeastern Washington and Northeastern Oregon. The farms both provide an extra source of income for the college and employment for local farmers.
Whitman had enrolled a number of the acres in the Conservation Reserve Program. The program, which is a part of the Farm Service Agency and the Department of Agriculture, gives a monetary reward to farmers who leave their farmland fallow and harvest no crops for profit. The goal of the Conservation Reserve Program, as they state on their website is “to encourage farmers to convert highly erodible cropland or other environmentally sensitive acreage to vegetative cover, such as tame or native grasses, wildlife plantings, trees, filterstrips, or riparian buffers.” Peter Harvey, the Whitman treasurer, explained that “the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is designed to encourage farmers to restore poor farming land to its native grasses and plantings.” Land with native grasses rather than crops helps prevent soil erosion and reduces sedimentation in surrounding streams and lakes.
The communication mishap occurred because Whitman believed it was acceptable to lease out land that they had enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program. Whitman Farm Committee representative Fred Kimball reportedly said that the tenant must pay a cash lease for his part of the college’s acreage. The arrangement was not put in writing, and other members of the Farm Committee were allegedly unaware of the change. With the income from the tenant, the total amount that Whitman received from its land exceeded the maximum limit allowed by the CRP.
In a ten-page decision, the Farm Service Agency determined that Whitman violated the payment limitation provisions of the Conservation Reserve Program. The provisions dictate that an owner can receive no more than $50,000 per year for land enrolled in the CRP. Due to the violation, Whitman had to refund the monetary rewards of the past two years plus interest that it had received from the Farm State Agency. The money was paid from the income that the college receives from its other farms, and will not affect Whitman’s ability to operate as it always has.
“We take great pride in the part we play in agriculture in Eastern Washington. It’s an important part of our financing,’’ said President George Bridges. “At the same time we realize the college made a mistake.”
Whitman Farm Committee member and trustee Jim Hayner said, “It is the policy of Whitman College to abide by and adhere to all government farm program rules.”
To avoid problems with its farmland in the future, Whitman is looking into a variety of solutions to improve communication and ensure that all provisions of its contracts are understood. The Whitman Farm Committee, which consists of both Whitman staff and local farmers, will undergo more extensive training. The college is also looking to hire a consultant whom they can look to for advice about these matters.
“Whitman’s farm program has grown in size over many years and with the added complexity of federal regulations governing farm programs we are examining new approaches to managing the farms,” said George Bridges in an e-mail interview. “We want to ensure that the mistake we made does not happen again.”