A “commercial vendor of agricultural data” requested farm numbers, tract numbers, and customer numbers from the USDA. The USDA assigns these numbers to administer its farm subsidy programs. The USDA refused to release this information under Exemptions 3 and 6 of the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). 5 U.S.C. § 522(b)(3), (6). The ag tech company then brought this lawsuit challenging the USDA’s refusal. The USDA moved for summary judgment which the district court granted. The ag tech company appealed.

The USDA withheld the farm numbers and tract numbers under Exemption 3. This exemption applies to records “specifically exempted from disclosure” by a statute. The 2008 Farm Bill prohibited the USDA from disclosing “geospatial information…about agricultural land or operations….” 7 U.S.C. § 8791(b)(2).

The ag tech company argued that “geospatial information” does not include the farm and tract numbers. Geospatial is defined as “relating to information that identifies where particular features are on earth’s surface, such as oceans or mountains.” Geospatial, Cambridge Business English Dictionary (2011). In the same way, the USDA uses farm and tract numbers to identify the specific location of a farm. The court noted that the Eighth Circuit had also concluded that farm and tract numbers fell within § 8791(b)(2)(B). Cent. Platte Nat. Res. Dist. V. USDA, 643 F.3d 1142 (8th Cir. 2011).

The USDA withheld the customer numbers under Exemption 6 of FOIA. A federal agency is not required to release requested records if the records are “similar” to “personnel” or “medical” files and if their disclosure “would constitute a clearly unwarranted invasion of personal privacy.” 5 U.S.C. § 552(b)(6). Because the customer numbers can be used to identify specific farm owners, the court concluded that they are “similar” files.

The court determined that releasing customer numbers would implicate a privacy interest because it would “allow for an inference to be drawn about the financial situation of an individual farmer.” If disclosure will harm a substantial privacy interest, the court must determine whether the privacy interest outweighs a significant public interest. Although there is a significant public interest in monitoring the USDA’s activity, § 8791 clearly shows the legislative intent to protect this information. Therefore, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the grant of summary judgment in favor of the USDA.

Telematch v. USDA, 2022 WL 3330101 (D.C. Aug. 12, 2022).