EWG revamps subsidy data, focuses on next farm bill

The Environmental Working Group, a thorn in the side of many farm subsidy proponents, has updated its Farm Subsidy Database by bringing in data from 2005. Having played a part during the 2002 farm bill debate, the controversial database (http://www.ewg.org/farm/) is loathed and derided by critics while being quoted favorably by politicians and watchdog groups. That dichotomy isn't expected to change when a new farm bill is debated next year.

While introducing the revamped database on Dec. 15, Ken Cook, who heads the Washington, D.C.-based EWG, began by explaining what the database “is not. We're still awaiting information from USDA. What we were not able to do — and were hoping to have done by this point — is have access to information provided by the department under Section 1614 of the farm bill. That would enable us to track more fully exactly who the beneficiaries of farm subsidy payments would be.

“This is something that's been somewhat controversial over the last few years. Pressure has built from Congress to make this data available. (Senators) Grassley and Harkin, in particular, have pressed the USDA to make available this information.”

EWG was told the new information would be available in August.

“But we've yet to see it. I'm not casting aspersions, and I can't explain what technical problems, if they are technical, might be holding things up.

“But it's very important to have that information available to have a fuller discussion of important issues in the next farm bill such as payment limitations. One of the main reasons, of course, is we're unable at this point (to say) who exactly is receiving USDA subsidy payments through cooperatives, specifically rice cooperatives.”

Information on other types of cooperatives — “cotton, for instance” — has been incorporated in the database. But EWG has “been unable to unpack the payments made to rice co-op members. And those are big payments.”

As a result, “we're stuck with what we've always been stuck with. One line in the database, for example, says, ‘Riceland, the top (USDA payment) recipient in the country’ because that's the only data we've been able to get.”

The Riceland data is a major point of contention in the Mid-south. EWG critics point out the rice cooperative has minimal farmland holdings and government payments are dispersed among the co-op members. Supplying a bulk number with no context is unfair, they say.

But without a breakdown of payments, Cook says, the EWG has no choice. He calls for the USDA to make this information available as the 2007 farm bill debate gets under way.

“In fairness, it is years overdue, and we're continuing to make our requests known. We filed the original FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request for the data after the farm bill was enacted, and it isn't an encouraging sign it's taken this long for them to manage to get a database in shape that could be released.”

What the new database does have is additional information on ownership of farm operations receiving government payments. “Last May we did receive a data file from the USDA that provided information about specific owners in larger farm operations where, in the past, we've seen the most complex, non-transparent payments (made).…

“There are more names to look up when you check larger operations. In the past, that may have only shown a series of corporations with an ownership interest in another corporation that, in turn, had an interest in another corporation. The USDA's data did provide more information on actual human beings that are behind these corporations.”

Even so, Cook claims gaps in knowledge about actual subsidy money recipients might get.

“So, we might (now know) that (John Doe) is a member of a corporation with a 20 percent ownership share in (Doe, Inc.). But we don't know how much (Doe) got directly by way of benefits. You can't assume he received 20 percent in proportion to his ownership share.”

Cook says the 2005 calendar year (the latest year the new data looks at) was the most expensive since the 2002 farm bill was enacted.

“It was $21 billion, or so, that we added to the database in payments we can track. That means the total over 11 years we've tracked — and it's important to remember it's 1995 through 2005 — is about $165 billion. That's a lot of money.”

Next year, substantial reductions in payments are expected.

“Corn payments will probably resemble those from 2003 where almost everything corn farmers received was in the form of a fixed direct payment plus whatever conservation benefits they got. … and, perhaps, disaster payments.

“In 2005, we saw the importance of price trigger payments. There were massive payments in the corn crop that won't be there next year because of the influence of ethanol and pretty strong export markets keeping prices up … significantly higher than target prices that trigger payments.”

The new database details the three “big components” of farm program payments. “You can check the various regions. So you can look at fixed direct payments for a congressional district, counter-cyclical payments for a state and … combined loan payments by … geography.”

The database also breaks down concentration of payments.

“The top 10 percent of the recipients over the 11-year period got 73 percent of the subsidies, about $120.5 billion. About 340,000 of the recipients averaged about $34,000 each year of the 11. The 80 percent at the bottom of the subsidy pyramid — 2.5 million of them — got about $700 per year.”

In a statement sure to upset his critics, Cook says this disparity is worth playing up and raises questions about whether “there's too much money at the top or, on the other hand, the utility of such small payments to those at the bottom.”

The updated database also provides state rankings.

“Texas nearly edged out Iowa (over the studied decade), but they both get just over $14.8 billion. They're followed by Illinois. Seven or eight states account for about half the money going out under the farm bill. … Likewise, there's a significant concentration for congressional districts. Something like 22 congressional districts account for about half the money. …

“We've been pointing (these things) out for years and want to raise expectations that there will be a significant debate about … whether there shouldn't be some rethinking to the shares of farm bills support. The best example, of course, is California — far and away the most important agricultural state in terms of volume of sales value nationwide. But it ranks 10th in agricultural assistance under the farm bill.

“That is one reason why we're seeing so much interest from fruit and vegetable growers in expanding their share of the next farm bill.”

During the coming farm bill debate, the EWG wants to add a new twist to the database. If successful, farmers will be able to check how their operation would be affected by the different plans introduced by politicians.

“We'll be able to give them some idea online of what different farm bill proposals might offer them. You saw an indication of the ability to do that in the debate over the disaster assistance package — particularly the piece that would've added 30 percent to the fixed direct payments of everyone who'd received it before.

“We were able to multiply by 0.3 all the payments made in the reference year (2005) and give people a good idea of who would benefit … on the basis of fixed direct payments.”

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