Farm Bill Restricts Access to CLU GIS Data – Part 3



In order to assess land cover in agricultural areas across the United States, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) established the Common Land Unit (CLU) as a standardized GIS data layer (see also ArcUser Online, ESRI, April – June 2002).

Due to language in this year’s Farm Bill (Food, Conservation and Energy Act of 2008), however, CLU GIS data are no longer releasable to the general public or to most other government agencies (CLU Info Sheet, June 2008). See my prior  blog posts for information on the court battle and subsequent language in the Farm Bill:

On a related note, the National Resources Conservation Services (NRCS) posted the following FOIA guidelines for NRCS programs, as per the statutory language of the Farm Bill:

Section 1244 of the Farm Bill includes specific statutory language pertaining to the release of technical and financial assistance information. Technical and financial information includes all information given by cooperators to USDA for the purpose of providing technical or financial assistance to an owner, operator, or producer with respect to any natural resources conservation program administered by the NRCS or FSA. It also includes information that is proprietary to the agricultural operation or land that is part of an agricultural operation of the owner, operator, or producer. It does not include payment information, including payment amounts and the names of payment recipients. .. In general, NRCS technical and financial information is not releasable to the public, and It cannot be released to any person, Federal agency, local agency, or Indian tribe outside of USDA.

Recently, I came across a position paper by AgriData, Inc. (August 28, 2008) that summarizes the impact of the CLU GIS data restriction to farmers and service providers:
Roger Johnson, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner, submitted this position paper for consideration during the National Association of State Departments of Agriculture (NASDA) annual meeting in September 2008.  In the internal NASDA action item form, titled “Farm Bill 1619 – Public Access to CLU Data,” Johnson asked that NASDA support an amendment to Section 1619 of the 2008 Farm Bill. This amendment, if passed, would allow the CLU data to be placed back into the public domain,  with the following attributes: Field Boundary, Acres, Tract Number, Farm Number, Field Number, Primary Classification of Land Unit Type, Administrating County, State Office.

 The CLU GIS data restirction is also a hot issue for the North Dakota Association of Counties’ GIS in Agland Valuation Forum.  On October 2, 2008, someone on the forum posted a letter by the Tax Commissioner for the State of North Dakota addressed to county tax directors. The letter states:

“House Bill (HB) 1303, passed by the 2007 North Dakota Legislative Assembly, amended North Dakota Century Code § 57-02-27.2(8). This law now requires local assessors to consider soil type and soil classification data from detailed or general soil surveys, the schedule of modifiers to be used within the county, and actual use of the property for cropland or noncropland purposes, when forming the relative value of each assessment parcel under their responsibility.

In March of this year, to assist you and your local assessors in carrying out the duties specified in HB 1303, I asked our office to send a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Request to the United States Department of Agriculture – Farm Service Agency (USDA-FSA). The FOIA request sought releasable information County FSA offices may have in their possession pertaining to field delineations and use of agricultural lands in North Dakota.

Specifically, the request sought common land unit (CLU) data collected and maintained by USDA-FSA. The objective was to enable the CLU information, if made available, to be shared with your office for use by you and your assessors when making land valuation determinations required by HB 1303.

Our FOIA request was denied. The 2008 Farm Bill specifically barred new or updated CLU data from release to the public. Thus, any appeal of the denial would likely fail.”


Furthermore,  a  September 28, 2008 blog posting titled “Farm Bill Prevents Sharing of Geospatial Data” on the Surveying, Mapping and GIS Blog commented:

“…a colleague was seeking historic aerial photographs from USDA, and was greeted with the following response:

“Please refer to Title 1, Subtitle F, Section 1619 titled “Information Gathering” on pages 256-259. This will give you the precise language of the 2008 Farm Bill which prevents FSA from providing geospatial information.

The bill is available here:

The Farm Bill, as I understand it, only restricts CLU data, and one should be able to get historical imagery from the APFO. Nonetheless, it is chilling to think that some might try to extend the reach of this statute to limit other kinds of geospatial data as well.

What is a Common Land Unit?

A CLU is “…the smallest unit of land that has a permanent, contiguous boundary, a common land cover and land management, a common owner and a common producer association.” As noted by the Farm Service Agency, “the primary purpose of the CLU in electronic format is to provide the Field Service Center with an accurate method of reporting accurate acreages calculations and boundary information regarding the tracts and fields.”

The CLU GIS data layer includes all farm fields, managed forested tracks, range land, pasture land, and other managed areas. CLU data can be used in combination with other GIS layers applications. For more information about CLU, its uses and benefits, refer to the CLU Info Sheet (FSA, June 2008).

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