Thursday, January 10, 2019

Top Ten Agricultural Law and Tax Developments of 2018 – Numbers 3, 2 and 1


Since the blog post on December 31, I have been surveying the biggest developments in agricultural law and taxation of 2018.  The first post looked at those developments that were not quite big enough to make the Top 10.  Subsequent posts have examined developments 10 through 4.  That brings us to today – the biggest three developments of 2018 in agricultural law and taxation. 

Number 3 – The 2018 Farm Bill

In general.  In late 2018, a new Farm Bill passed the Congress and was signed into law.  As for cost, the total estimated price tag for the Farm Bill is $867 billion (a large portion of that total is devoted to Food Stamps) and it didn’t address the estimated $32 billion in in cost overruns on price loss coverage (PLC) and agriculture risk coverage (ARC) of the prior Farm Bill.

The Farm Bill, like prior law, doesn’t treat all entities that are similarly taxed the same under the attribution rules.  In other words, an entity must either be a general partnership or a joint venture to not be limited in payment limits at the entity level.   Also remaining the same is the $900,000 AGI limitation to be eligible to participate in federal farm programs.  The general $125,000 payment limit also remains the same.     

Crop reference prices.  Reference prices (for PLC) will be the greater of the current reference price; or 85 percent of the average of the marketing year average price for the most recent five-year period, excluding the high and low prices.  If base acres were not planted to a covered crop from 2009-2017, the base acres will be maintained but won’t be eligible for any PLC or ARC payments.  The old reference price will be used or the “effective reference price” (ERP).  The ERP is used each year and used in determining if there will be a PLC payment.  The ERP will never be lower than the current reference price and can never be higher than 115% of the current reference price (from the 2014 Farm Bill).  That means that it is possible for the reference price to increase when prices decrease.   The ERP will be calculated annually based on 85 percent of the Olympic Average of the mid-year average prices for the last five crop years (eliminating the highest and lowest prices).  If this number is higher, it is then compared to 115 percent of the current reference price.  If it is lower, it will be the effective reference price for that crop year.  If it is higher than the 115 percent, it will be limited to 115 percent.  Presently, most major crops are not close to any adjustment to the reference price for at least the next couple of years. 

The Farm Bill give participating producers a one-time opportunity to update program yields.  The update is accomplished by means of a formula.  The formula takes 90 percent of the average yield for crops from 2013-2017 and reduces it by a ratio that compares the 2013-2017 national average yields with the average for 2008-2012 crops.  That producers a “yield update factor” that determines the portion of the initial 90 percent that can be used to update program yields.  The update factor will vary from crop to crop.   

As for ARC, it will be based on physical location of the farm and RMA data will have priority.  If a farm crosses county lines, ARC payments will be computed on a pro-rata basis in accordance with the acres in each county with irrigated and non-irrigated payments being calculated for each county.  Also, the USDA, with respect to ARC, will use a yield plug of 80 percent of the “transitional yield” and will calculate a trend-adjusted yield that will be used in benchmark calculations.

Other features.  The Farm Bill contains numerous other provision of importance.  The following is a bullet-point list of a few of the more significant ones:

  • While a producer is locked into either PLC or ARC for 2019-2020, an annual election can be made to change the election beginning in 2021.
  • The dairy margin program has been enhanced significantly such that smaller scale dairy producers are major beneficiaries under the Farm Bill.
  • The CRP acreage cap is increased from 24 million acres to 27 million acres by 2023 (with CRP rental rates limited to 90 percent of the county average rental rate for land enrolled via the continuous enrollment option, and 85 percent of the county average for general enrollments). Two million acres are reserved for grasslands.
  • The Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP) is reauthorized, but eliminated is the acre-based funding cap and the $18/acre national average payment rate. Spending is also capped at $1 billion annually. 
  • The Environmental Quality Incentives Program (EQIP) gets enhanced funding (by $.25 billion) with half of the increase pegged for livestock.
  • Farm direct ownership loans are increased from $300,000 to $600,000, and guarantees are enhanced from $700,000 to $1,750,000.
  • The Farm Bill increases loan rates by 13-24 percent for grains and soybeans. The new loan rates are$2.20 for corn; $6.20 for soybeans; $3.38 for wheat; $2.20 for sorghum; $2.50 for barley; $2.00 for oats.
  • Base acres that were planted entirely to grass and pasture from 2009-2017 will not be eligible for farm program payments, but will be eligible for a five-year grassland incentive contract with the “rental amount” set at $18/acre.
  • Crop insurance is not significantly changed, but modifications to crop insurance are designed to incentivize the use of cover crops.
  • Hemp is added as an “agricultural commodity” eligible for taxpayer subsidies and it is removed from the federal list of controlled substances.
  • Nieces nephews and first cousins can qualify for payments without farming;
  • Work is not required to get food stamps;
  • New taxpayer subsidies are proved for hops and barley.
  • The Farm Bill codifies many changes to the National Organic Standards Board and how the Board represents the public and the USDA on matters concerning organic crops.

Number Two - Waters of the United States (“WOTUS”) Developments

In general.  The Clean Water Act (CWA) makes illegal the discharging of dredge or fill material into the “navigable waters of the United States” (WOTUS) without first obtaining a permit from the Secretary of the Army acting through the Corps of Engineers (COE).  Unfortunately, just exactly what is a WOTUS that is subject to federal regulation has been less than clear for many years and that uncertainty has resulted in a great deal of litigation.  In 2006, the U.S. Supreme Court had a chance to clarify the matter but failed.  Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006).  In subsequent years, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) attempted to exploit that lack of clarity by expanding the regulatory definition of a WOTUS. 

2014 proposed regulation.  In March of 2014, the EPA and the COE released a proposed rule defining “waters of the United States” (WOTUS) in a manner that would significantly expand the agencies’ regulatory jurisdiction under the CWA. Under the proposed rule, the CWA would apply to all waters which have been or ever could be used in interstate commerce as well as all interstate waters and wetlands. In addition, the proposed WOTUS rule specifies that the agencies’ jurisdiction would apply to all “tributaries” of interstate waters and all waters and wetlands “adjacent” to such interstate waters. The agencies also asserted in the proposed rule that their jurisdiction applies to all waters or wetlands with a “significant nexus” to interstate waters.

Under the proposed rule, “tributaries” is broadly defined to include natural or man-made waters, wetlands, lakes, ponds, canals, streams and ditches if they contribute flow directly or indirectly to interstate waters irrespective of whether these waterways continuously exist or have any nexus to traditional “waters of the United States.” The proposed rule defines “adjacent” expansively to include “bordering, contiguous or neighboring waters.” Thus, all waters and wetlands within the same riparian area of flood plain of interstate waters would be “adjacent” waters subject to CWA regulation. “Similarly situated” waters are evaluated as a “single landscape unit” allowing the agencies to regulate an entire watershed if one body of water within it has a “significant nexus” to interstate waters.

The proposed rule became effective as a final rule on August 28, 2015 in 37 states and became known as the “2015 WOTUS rule.”

2015 court injunction and 2016 Sixth Circuit ruling.  On October 9, 2015, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit issued a nationwide injunction barring the rule from being enforced anywhere in the U.S. Ohio, et al. v. United States Army Corps of Engineers, et al., 803 F.3d 804 (6th Cir. 2015). Over 20 lawsuits had been filed at the federal district court level. On February 22, 2016, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled that it had jurisdiction to hear the challenges to the final rule, siding with the EPA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that the CWA gives the circuit courts exclusive jurisdiction on the matter. The court determined that the final rule is a limitation on the manner in which the EPA regulates pollutant discharges under CWA Sec. 509(b)(1)(E), the provision addressing the issuance of denial of CWA permits (codified at 33 U.S.C. §1369(b)(1)(E)). That statute, the court reasoned, has been expansively interpreted by numerous courts and the practical application of the final rule, the court noted, is that it impacts permitting requirements. As such, the court had jurisdiction to hear the dispute. The court also cited the Sixth Circuit’s own precedent on the matter in National Cotton Council of America v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, 553 F.3d 927 (6th Cir. 2009) for supporting its holding that it had jurisdiction to decide the dispute. Murray Energy Corp. v. United States, Department of Defense, No. 15-3751, 2016 U.S. App. LEXIS 3031 (6th Cir Feb. 22, 2016). 

2017 – The U.S. Supreme Court jumps in and the “suspension rule.”  In January of 2017, the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to review the Sixth Circuit’s decision. National Association of Manufacturers v. Department of Defense, et al., 137 S. Ct. 811 (2017). About a month later, President Trump issued an Executive Order directing the EPA and the COE to revisit the Clean Water Rule and change their interpretation of waters subject to federal jurisdiction such that it only applied to waters that were truly navigable – the approach taken by Justice Scalia in Rapanos v. United States, 547 U.S. 715 (2006). The EPA and Corps later indicated they would follow the President’s suggested approach, and would push the effective date of the revised Clean Water Rule to two years after its finalization and publication in the Federal Register. In November of 2017, the EPA issued a proposed rule (the “suspension rule”) delaying the effective date of the WOTUS rule until 2020.

2018 developments.  In January of 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled unanimously that jurisdiction over challenges to the WOTUS rule was in the federal district courts, reversing the Sixth Circuit’s opinion. National Association of Manufacturer’s v. Department of Defense, No. 16-299, 2018 U.S. LEXIS 761 (U.S. Sup. Ct. Jan. 22, 2018). The Court determined that the plain language of the Clean Water Act (CWA) gives authority over CWA challenges to the federal district courts, with seven exceptions none of which applied to the WOTUS rule. In particular, the WOTUS rule neither established an “effluent limitation” nor resulted in the issuance of a permit denial. While the Court noted that it would be more efficient to have the appellate courts hear challenges to the rule, the court held that the statute would have to be rewritten to achieve that result. Consequently, the Supreme Court remanded the case to the Sixth Circuit, with instructions to dismiss all of the WOTUS petitioners currently before the court. Once the case was dismissed, the nationwide stay of the WOTUS rule that the court entered in 2015 was removed, and the injunction against the implementation of the WOTUS rule entered by the North Dakota court was reinstated in those 13 states.

This “suspension” rule that was issued in November of 2017 was published in the Federal Register on February 6, 2018, and had the effect of delaying the 2015 WOTUS rule for two years. In the interim period, the controlling interpretation of WOTUS was to be the 1980s regulation that had been in place before the 2015 WOTUS rule became effective.  The “suspension rule” was challenged in court by a consortium of environmental and conservation activist groups.  They claimed that the rule violated the Administrative Procedures Act (APA) due to inadequate public notice and comment, and that the substantive implications of the suspension were not considered which was arbitrary and capricious, and improperly restored the 1980s regulation.

In June of 2018, the federal district court for the southern district of Georgia entered a preliminary injunction barring the WOTUS rule from being implemented in 11 states - Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, South Carolina, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin. Georgia v. Pruitt, No. 2:15-cv-79, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 97223 (S.D. Ga. Jun. 8, 2018).  A prior decision by the North Dakota federal district court had blocked the rule from taking effect in 13 states – AK, AZ, AR, CO, ID, MO, MT, NE, NV, NM, ND, SD and WY. North Dakota v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, No. 3:15-cv-59 (D. N.D. May 24, 2016).

In July of 2018, the COE and the EPA issued a supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking. The proposed rule seeks to “clarify, supplement and seek additional comment on” the 2017 congressional attempt to repeal the Obama Administration’s 2015 WOTUS rule.  Repeal would mean that the prior regulations defining a WOTUS would become the law again. The agencies are seeking additional comments on the proposed rulemaking via the supplemental notice. The comment period was open through August 13, 2018.

In August of 2018, the court issued its opinion in the “suspension rule” case. The court agreed with the plaintiffs, determining that the content restriction on the scope of the public comments that the agencies levied during the rulemaking process violated the APA, and enjoined the suspension rule on a nationwide basis. South Carolina Conservation League, et al. v. Pruitt, No. 2-18-cv-330-DCN, 2018 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 138595 (D. S.C. Aug. 16, 2018).

In September of 2018, another federal court entered a preliminary injunction against the implementation of the Obama-era WOTUS rule.  This time the injunction applied in Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, and applied until the court resolved the case on the issue pending before it. The court specifically noted that the public’s interest in having the Obama-era WOTUS rule preliminarily enjoined was “overwhelming.” Texas v. United States Environmental Protection Agency, et al., No. 3:15-CV-00162 (S.D. Tex. Sept. 12, 2018).

On December 11, 2018, the EPA and the COE proposed a new WOTUS definition that is narrower than the 2015 WOTUS definition, particularly with respect to streams that have water in them only for short periods of time.  Once the new proposed rule is published in the Federal Register, a 60-day comment period will be triggered.  That publication date (and comment period and subsequent hearing) has now been delayed by the partial government shutdown.

Whew!  What a trek through the WOTUS landscape!

Number 1 - I.R.C. §199A (and the proposed regulations)

In general. At the top of the list for 2018 stands the qualified business income deduction (QBID) of new I.R.C. §199A as created by the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA).  The QBID is a 20 percent deduction for sole proprietorships and pass-through businesses on qualified business income effective for years 2018-2025.  The new deduction makes tax planning and preparation more complex - much more complex and it impacts all farm and ranch businesses in terms of how to structure the business and tax planning to take advantage of the deduction. In addition, a complex formula applies to taxpayers that are deemed “high income” under the provision.  The formula causes a re-computation of the deduction and injects additional planning concerns.  In addition, a separate computation applies to agricultural cooperatives and their patrons.  The wide application of the new provision throughout the economy and the agricultural sector cannot be understated.

Proposed regulations.  On August 8, 2018, the Treasury issued proposed regulations concerning the QBID.  While some aspects of the proposed regulations are favorable to agriculture, other aspects create additional confusion, and some issues are not addressed at all. One favorable aspect is an aggregation provision that allows a farming operation with multiple businesses (e.g., row-crop; livestock; etc.) and common ownership to aggregate the businesses for purposes of the QBID.  This is, perhaps, the most important feature of the proposed regulations with respect to agricultural businesses because it allows a higher income farming or ranching business to make an election to aggregate their common controlled entities into a single entity for purposes of the QBID. 

Similar to the benefit of aggregation, farms with multiple entities can allocate qualified W-2 wages to the appropriate entity that employs the employee under common law principles.  This avoids the taxpayer being required to start payroll in each entity.  Likewise, carryover losses that were incurred before 2018 and that are now allowed in years 2018-2025 will be ignored in calculating qualified business income (QBI) for purposes of the QBID.  This is an important issue for taxpayers that have had passive losses that have been suspended under the passive loss rules. 

Other areas of the proposed regulations need clarification in final regulations.  As for aggregation and common ownership of the entities to be aggregated, the proposed regulations limit family attribution to just the spouse, children, grandchildren and parents.  In other words, common ownership is limited to lineal ancestors and descendants.  It would be helpful if the final regulations included siblings in the relationship test.  Also, one of the big issues for farmers and ranchers operating as sole proprietorships or as a pass-through entity is whether land rental income constitutes QBI.  One of the unclear issues under the proposed regulations is whether income that a landlord receives from leasing land to an unrelated party (or parties) under a cash lease or non-material participation share lease may qualifies for the QBID.  It may not.  Clarity is needed.    

The proposed regulations appear to take the position that gain that is “treated” as capital gain is not QBI. This would appear to exclude I.R.C. §1231 gain (such as is incurred on the sale of breeding livestock) from being QBI-eligible.  Clarity is needed on this point also.  Other areas needing clarification include the treatment of losses and how to treat income from the trading in commodities.  In addition, clarification is needed with respect to various issues associated with a trusts and estates. 


2018 was another incredibly active year on the ag law and tax front.  2019 looks like it will continue the pace.  Stay dialed in to the blog, website, seminars, TV and radio programs to keep up with the developments as they occur.

Environmental Law, Income Tax, Regulatory Law | Permalink


Post a comment