Wednesday, March 09, 2005

The cash cow

Like a cow pumped full of Monsanto's growth hormones, the U.S. farm-subsidy program has been gushing prodigiously since 1995--"the costliest decade in the 70-year history of government farm subsidies," according to the Environmental Working Group.

That heroic organization has broken down the US farm-subsidy system in all its sordid grandeur, and put the results up on a wonderful Web site (brought to my attention by an article the yesterday's Washington Post referenced here).

Start here, with the EWG's analysis of the data it generated. According to EWG, the U.S. government dropped a cool $131 billion on subsidies between 1995 and 2003. However,

It's not as if the subsidies are 'saving the family farm.' Of the 2,128,982 farms enumerated by the most recent Census of Agriculture, for 2002, only 33 percent received government payments. Two-thirds of the nation's farmers get no subsidy payments whatsoever. For the most part they don't qualify because they grow the 'wrong' things. If you want to see what the wrong things are, stroll through the produce aisle or meat department of your local supermarket. The farmers who produce most of America's food do so without a check from taxpayers.


That's because the large-scale farms have managed to dominate the government milk teat, the report goes on:

The real action is at the top of the farm subsidy food chain, where 10 percent of the recipients—just over 305,023 individuals, partnerships, corporations, estates and myriad other entities—took in 72 percent of the total payments taxpayers provided for conservation, commodity and disaster programs over the 9 years. (That's an upward tick of 1 percent in concentration for the top 10 percent over the eight-year analysis EWG presented last year.) They collected, on average, $309,823 each, roughly $34,000 annually. The elite in this world of government dependency collected even more. The top four percent of recipients, for instance, number just over 122,000. Yet they cost taxpayers about $65 billion over 9 years, which works out to an average of $529,000, or nearly $59,000 per year.


The report goes on to detail just how skewed the system is toward subsidizing large-scale, environmentally ruinous commodity farming vs. funding sustainable-farming efforts. It states:

The public hears a lot of soothing, bi-partisan talk about the vital importance of conservation and protecting the environment whenever it's time to move an ungainly farm subsidy bill through the body politic. But once the flow of commodity payments has been locked in, Congress proceeds in the out years to cut funds from the very conservation programs that provide broader, public interest cover when subsidy bills are under fire.


Case in point: For all the wailing among red-state politicians about how Bush's proposed 2006 budget would cut commodity subsidies (see this post), I've heard no complaints from any major politician about how the budget would affect conservation funding. The indispensable National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service hasbroken down just what the budget would do to conservation programs, and it's not pretty.

I guess we'll have to wait until it's time to promote the next Farm Bill before politicians start prattling about conservation funding again. Meanwhile, the disparity is stark. Between 1995 and 2003, the government paid out $103.7 in commodity support, vs. $16.3 billion for conservation. The report also details how the large farms game the government on disaster aid.

Once you've read the analysis, it's time to play with the state-by-state data base. It's fun.

Take Texas, my home state and Bush's. Twelve or so years ago, current governor Rick Perry, longtime stable boy for the state's large-scale ranchers, edged out Jim Hightower as the state's Ag commissioner. (Say what you want about Hightower, but there he was in the late '80s and early '90s, promoting organic agriculture and hormone-free beef as ag commissioner of Texas.) The state snatched $432 million in livestock subsidies between 1995 and 2003, with the largest 10 percent of the recipients hoarding 57 percent of the take.

I always hated how, in New York City, Washington apples were ubiquitous in stores, while state-grown apples were rare and more expensive. Well, Washington soaked up $134 million in subsidies between '95 and '03, while NY state farmers got only $29.1 million. I doubt the apple farmers whose produce I so treasured in the farmers market got much of the action. The top 20 percent of recipients snared more than half of the goodies.

Check out what's happening with ag subsidies in your state, and then pressure one of those rogue U.S. Reps to do something about it.

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