The federal government has no idea whether a $4 billion U.S. Department of Agriculture initiative for beginning farmers has worked at all, according to the Office of Inspector General (OIG).
"USDA agencies provided significant financial and technical support to beginning farmers and ranchers, totaling approximately $3.9 billion in FYs 2012 and 2013," according to an audit released Tuesday. "However, the Department lacked effective performance goals and measures, as well as direction, coordination, and monitoring to ensure that this initiative was effectively accomplished."
"USDA can neither ensure that the $3.9 billion of beginning farmer assistance in fiscal years 2012 and 2013 has achieved effective and measurable outcomes nor determine if three decades of beginning farmers assistance has resulted in sustainable farming operations," the OIG added.
A spokesperson for the USDA said that the department had made progress in addressing the concerns raised in the report. "Many of the activities described in this report happened several years ago," said Wendy Wasserman, the spokesperson. "Since then, the Department has made significant investments to support our nation’s next generation of farmers and ranchers."
"We are fully committed to supporting the next generation of farmers and ranchers and to taking action on the recommendations included in this report," she added.
The audit pointed to a report from the Government Accountability Office in 1982 that urged the USDA to accurately measure whether the program was beneficial to Americans. Subsequent reports found the agency has not corrected the problem.
The 2008 Farm Bill mandated the USDA to create an Office of Advocacy and Outreach (OAO) "to measure the outcomes of the programs and activities of the Department related to beginning farmers."
"However, after 5 years of existence, OAO officials could not provide us with evidence supporting how they have accomplished four of the seven essential duties mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill," the audit said.
An additional problem, according to the OIG, is that the government does not know what a "beginning farmer" is.
"Another major obstacle in measuring the effectiveness of beginning farmer assistance is the Department’s lack of a standard definition of ‘beginning farmers,’" the audit said.
"Each agency we reviewed had its own definition, sometimes incorporating program eligibility requirements into the definition," the OIG said. "While we noted some common themes in the definitions (such as using 10 years of farming experience to define the limit), there were subtle differences between the definitions which rendered them quite distinct."
"OIG maintains that differing definitions make developing a crosscutting Departmental performance goal for beginning farmers assistance very difficult," they said.
The USDA has numerous programs for beginning farmers, which are administered by its Farm Service Agency, Natural Resources Conservation Service, National Institute of Food and Agriculture, Risk Management Agency, and Rural Development division.
Together, these USDA agencies provide grants, loans, credit, crop insurance, and other monetary assistance for the USDA’s beginning farmers and ranchers initiative.
Though poor oversight has left the government unsure whether billions have been spent wisely, the OIG said the USDA is "moving in the right direction" because an official held a meeting to "focus on assisting beginning farmers and ranchers" last year, and the agency created a new website for the initiative.
Update 12:13 P.M.: This post has been updated with comment from the USDA.