Michigan Farm News

Iowa Farmland Owner Sues USDA over ‘Swampbuster’ Abuse, Restrictions

April 19, 2024

(Michigan Farm News)—Jim Conlan, an Iowa farmland owner and attorney by trade, filed a lawsuit April 16 against USDA for its attempt to restrict farming activities on land he owns in Iowa under the “Swampbuster” provisions of the 1985 Food Security Act.

Represented at no charge by the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF), Liberty Justice Center, and Upper Midwest Law Center, Conlan is “fighting back against the agencies’ abusive and improper use of government authority,” according to the lawsuit.

The federal lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Iowa, challenges the constitutionality of USDA’s Swampbuster statute to hold regulators accountable to the rule of law and restore private property rights for farmers and everyone else.

“The Constitution does not grant the federal government the power to regulate any piece of land in the country it wishes,” said Paige Gilliard, an attorney at PLF. “Nor may government force people to give up their rights in exchange for a government benefit.”

Conlan grew up on a family farm. So, when considering new investment options, reconnecting with his family legacy through agriculture was a natural fit. He began buying farmland, accumulating nearly 1,100 acres over time, including a farm once owned by his grandparents, that he then rented to active farmers.

However, Conlan ran headlong into government regulators in 2022 when he purchased a 71-acre parcel in eastern Iowa’s Delaware County. Soon afterward, the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS)—relying on a Certified Wetland Delineation from 2010—identified nine acres scattered across the field as federally protected wetlands.

That determination triggered the “Swampbuster” provisions of the 1985 Food Security Act that prohibited farming those acres to remain eligible for USDA farm programs, including crop insurance.

According to PLF, if the government makes it impossible to use your property, it’s normally considered a taking, and the government must compensate the landowner.

“Conditioning pre-existing government programs on what amounts to signing away your rights doesn’t let the government ignore the Takings Clause of the Constitution. It’s no different than if the government said it’s not giving you Social Security unless you give them an easement on your property,” PLF attorneys claim.

PLF argues the Swampbuster’s complex regulatory scheme is a bureaucratic nightmare that only encourages agency overreach.

“In Conlan’s case, the NRCS targeted isolated areas of his land that contain no standing water and are not connected to any water body, but never justified its wetlands determination,” PLF adds.

“If the government wants to restrict citizens’ property use, it must clearly define the restrictions and compliance process. Furthermore, limiting private property rights without compensation is an unconstitutional ‘taking.’”

According to PLF, there’s a grave risk the USDA and NRCS may increasingly leverage Swampbuster to regulate land features no longer considered wetlands under the Clean Water Act (CWA).

After the 2023 Supreme Court decision in Sackett v. EPA to exclude features like vernal pools and prairie potholes from CWA jurisdiction, PLF says those features remain fair game under Swampbuster’s broader text lacking any “navigable waters” limitation.

“If left unchecked, the government will be able to use Swampbuster to achieve what the Supreme Court said it cannot under the Clean Water Act in Sackett. That is, to prohibit beneficial activity on vast swaths of land from coast to coast. The courts should stop this abuse of Swampbuster just like they stopped the abuse of the Clean Water Act,” PLF concluded.