Protecting farmers' and ranchers' right to privacy is a top priority, said the American Farm Bureau Federation, which took legal action recently to stop the Environmental Protection Agency from publicly releasing personal information about thousands of farmers and ranchers and their families. EPA was about to respond to several Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests asking EPA to disclose the personal information, prompting AFBF to file a lawsuit and seek a temporary restraining order before the U.S. District Court for the District of Minnesota. As a result of AFBF's legal action, EPA has agreed to hold off on responding to the pending FOIA requests, and any future FOIA requests seeking the same information, until the legal issues raised by the lawsuit are resolved by a court. The National Pork Producers Council joined AFBF in the lawsuit.
EPA's efforts to gather and disseminate data on livestock and poultry operations began as early as 2010, when EPA settled a lawsuit with environmental groups. In the settlement, EPA agreed to propose a rule requiring livestock and poultry farmers to provide the agency with specific information such as their locations and personal contact information, which the agency in turn would make available to the public. Facing strong criticism from AFBF and Congress, EPA withdrew the proposal in July 2012, but continued to gather the information using data collected from state regulators.
Earlier this year, in response to FOIA requests from three environmental groups, EPA handed over all the data it had gathered from state regulators. The records included thousands of livestock and poultry farmers' and ranchers' names, home addresses, GPS coordinates and personal contact information. Farmers and ranchers in 29 states were affected.
After AFBF and other farm groups objected, EPA admitted that some personal information had been wrongly disclosed. But the agency also took the position that it has no obligation to protect the vast majority of personal information it has obtained. Just this month, AFBF learned of EPA's plans to release the same information as before, plus additional personal information from farmers in Minnesota, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oklahoma and Washington, in response to several new FOIA requests. The threat of this further disclosure is what prompted the AFBF suit.
"We are sticking up for the tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers whose personal information would end up in the public domain," said AFBF President Bob Stallman. "This lawsuit is about the government's unjustified intrusion into citizens' private lives."
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 addresses for public consumption, EPA is inviting intrusion into the privacy of farmers and their families on a nationwide scale.
"We support transparency and frequently advocate for increased government transparency," said Stallman. "But publicly sharing spreadsheet upon spreadsheet of tens of thousands of peoples' names, addresses and other personal information is not transparency in the workings of government-it is an invasion of the personal privacy of citizens.
"EPA is in effect holding up a loudspeaker and broadcasting where private citizens live and where their children play," continued Stallman.
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.
"In the scope of everything happening nationally with the exposure of citizens' private information, it's time to say enough is enough," said Stallman. "Farm Bureau is not only standing up for farmers in this case, but we are also standing up for all citizens who shouldn't have their personal information publicly disseminated by their government."