In 1933, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed the "Agricultural Adjustment Act" into law. The program's primary goal was to limit production of key farm commodities in order to raise prices. About 10 million acres of crops were plowed under and tons of fruit was allowed to rot in orchards. The plan worked and in 1935, food welfare programs grew in popularity as the Federal Surplus Commodities Corporation began distributing excess farm products to schools.
Today, initiatives like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP -- -- formerly known as Food Stamps -- -- and other social programs make up about 70 percent of the total Agriculture Department budget. Farm and commodity programs, on the other hand, account for less than 20 percent of USDA expenditures.
Increasingly though, farm subsidies draw fire from critics who say the Agriculture Department is a bloated symbol of government waste.
When lawmakers overrode George W. Bush's presidential veto to enact the $290 billion Farm Bill in 2008, proponents claimed it would cut government payments to wealthy farmers. But two years later, critics claim little appears to have changed.
Data released last week by the Environmental Working Group reveals some of the wealthiest farmers in the country continue to receive the bulk of government cash, despite reforms in the bill designed to put more money in the hands of smaller-scale operators.
Ken Cook, Environmental Working Group: "...after all the talk about reform in the last farm bill in 2008 that we were going to cut off subsidies to millionaires and restrain spending for the biggest operators in the country. The evidence that comes out of this latest update is that that has not happened. We're continuing to spend money pretty much as we used to on the largest operations."
Ken Cook directs the Environmental Working Group, or EWG, a Washington-based advocacy group that has long pushed for more equitable distribution of farm subsidies.
Utilizing USDA figures obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the EWG publishes a database on farm payments. EWG is the sole source for the searchable compilation because USDA does NOT organize its data for the public to search.
EWG's most recent database shows just 10 percent of farmers received 62 percent of federal farm payments in 2009, virtually the same amount as in 2007 and 2008.
Ken Cook, Environmental Working Group: "I feel very strongly that the department has abandoned its responsibility to the public. If they can't find a few million dollars to tell the public who is getting $15 billion something is really wrong in the Department of Agriculture."
Exactly how much the government pays to individuals and some organizations is becoming harder to determine.
In the past, the Agriculture Department previously released data showing which individuals received subsidies through business entities and how much they were paid. But, the Environmental Working Group claims it could not obtain the information this time because Congress directed USDA to prohibit the release of some data due to privacy concerns for farmers.
Ken Cook, Environmental Working Group: " I think the department is making excuses for the fact that they don't want to disclose some very politically sensitive information. There are a number of very close elections underway in the south. In some of those states cotton and rice farmers get a lot of money, they don't want anyone, the public knowing about just how much money they receive, it's millions of dollars. They set up these paper farms, these shell partnerships and corporations for the specific purpose of hiding who is really getting the money."
USDA maintains it can cost as much as $6.7 million to produce the database and Congress failed to appropriate funds to compile a searchable version. Nevertheless, USDA officials claim they are being "transparent."
Ken Cook, Environmental Working Group: "...transparency has been vital to this farm subsidy debate. I think once people began to understand who was getting the money people were scratching their heads and saying, can't we do better than this? We're not paying all farmers the same amount. We're paying the big farmers most of it, 10% get over 70% of the money. We're not paying all farmers in terms of what they grow in a fair way. Vegetable producers, livestock producers, they don't get any subsidy money by and large yet we have this policy that is propelling the consolidation of the sector, the big farms that get the money are able, better able with government money to buy out their neighbors. What is going on? Well, if you don't have full transparency, if you can't look through these shell partnerships and corporations and understand exactly who is getting the money, and we can't now in the Obama administration publicly, I think you've lost an important source of information for the public to determine what better course farm policy ought to take." "