Farmers, ranchers back privacy protection bills

Farm Forum

Newly introduced legislation would prohibit EPA from disclosing the private and confidential information of livestock and poultry producers to the public, as the agency did in 2013 in response to a Freedom of Information Act request by several environmental groups. The Farm Bureau-supported Farmer Identity Protection Act (S. 1343, H.R. 4157) was introduced in the Senate by Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) and Joe Donnelly (D-Ind.) and in the House by Reps. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.), Lee Terry (R-Neb.), Mike McIntyre (D-N.C.) and Jim Costa (D-Calif.).

EPA’s earlier massive data release contained tens of thousands of lines in spreadsheets often including personal names, home phone numbers, home emails, employee contact information, home addresses and in some cases personal notes about the families of more than 80,000 farmers in 29 states. EPA had required state regulatory agencies to provide the agency with this information, which it then publicly released in its entirety.

With the agency prepared to respond to several similar FOIA requests in July 2013, the American Farm Bureau Federation filed a lawsuit and sought a temporary restraining order before the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota to stop EPA from releasing additional personal information from farmers in Minnesota, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oklahoma and Washington.

In seeking an immediate court order stopping EPA’s imminent release, AFBF stalled disclosures of farmers’ and ranchers’ names, home addresses, GPS coordinates and personal contact information until a court can clarify EPA’s obligation to keep personal information about citizens private. The National Pork Producers Council joined AFBF in the lawsuit, which is ongoing.

Despite the shock and outrage expressed by AFBF, farmers, ranchers, lawmakers and others about the information release, EPA stood firm in its position that it had no legal obligation under FOIA to keep most of the information private.

According to AFBF, the majority of farmers and ranchers, as well as their families, don’t just work on the farm – they live there, too. By turning over farmers’ names and home addresses for public consumption, EPA is inviting intrusion into the privacy of farmers and their families on a nationwide scale.

“We support transparency and often call for more of it from the government,” explained Ellen Steen, AFBF general counsel. “But publicly sharing spreadsheet upon spreadsheet of tens of thousands of peoples’ names, addresses and other personal information crosses over the line of transparency to invasion of the personal privacy of citizens.”

AFBF said it does not necessarily object to the collection of aggregated data of farm and ranch business information for government use, but in the wrong hands personal location information could disrupt farm activity and lead to farm equipment theft or even sabotage or criminal mischief, especially for those farms that store fertilizer and chemicals or have large numbers of animals on the farm.