Iowa Public Television


Farm Subsidy Database Raises Eyebrows

posted on June 15, 2007

Hello, I'm Mark Pearson. Despite rising gasoline prices, U.S. consumers stormed the malls in May, boosting monthly sales figures by the largest amount in more than a year.

**According to the Commerce Department, retail sales surged nearly one-and-a-half percent in May... double the increase many analysts had expected.

**The report sparked a rally on Wall Street Wednesday when the Dow surged 187 points, in its largest single-day gain in nearly a year.

**Nevertheless, prices ARE going up. The closely watched Consumer Price Index rose 0.7 percent in May. That's its largest monthly advance since Hurricane Katrina shut down Gulf Coast oil production in the summer of 2005.

**Outside of the volatile energy and food sectors though, core inflation rose by just one-tenth of a percent, **fostering hopes that the Federal Reserve won't raise short-term interest rates when it meets later this month.

All of these variables, of course, factor into the U.S. economy. But rural America's bottom line also is influenced heavily by government farm programs. So when a government watchdog published the names of 1.5 million recipients of farm subsidies this week, the announcement raised a few eyebrows.

Farm Subsidy Database Raises Eyebrows

Ken Cook, President, Environmental Working Group: "Our system of farm subsidies is broken and its time for change. We need significant changes to our farm system if its going to deliver what most taxpayers expect."

Proponents of an overhaul to the nation's farm subsidy system unveiled a wide-reaching online database this week. The searchable directory, made public by the Environmental Working Group, compiles USDA data into a list of every individual farm subsidy recipient between 2003 and 2005.

The website shows the geographical location of every farm receiving government subsidies and exact dollar amounts for commodity and conservation programs.

Environmental Working Group President Ken Cook stressed the organization's new database exposes so-called "pass-through" dollars that recipients earn through farm businesses and that the information raises serious questions about farm policy.

Ken Cook: "Two-thirds of all farmers in the country, according to the Agriculture Census, receive no farm subsidies. It's fair to ask that when money is so short in the federal budget…is this the best that we can do with the 25 billion dollars in farm spending every year."

Rep. Jeff Flake, R – Arizona: "It will point out individuals who are getting payments and it's embarrassing to try and justify. Sometimes shame and ridicule work and if you have good information out there you can actually see how much money is going to non-farmers."

Congressmen Jeff Flake was one of many lawmakers to take notice of the EWG database. Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin stated the directory may play a role in the 2007 farm bill – possibly weakening efforts by defenders of large payments.

Critics of the database argue the EWG is trying to "smear farmers" and some farm groups claim the data is flawed. Cook counters that the information comes directly from USDA and any flaws could be from their data.

Nevertheless, the subsidy database could bolster attempts by farm state Senators Charles Grassley and Byron Dorgan to limit farm payments to $250,000.

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa: "Now the average taxpayer listening to me say that will say ‘what planet did you come from?' $250,000 is a lot of support. But I'm saying in comparison to limits now in the bill that are $360,000 and legal subterfuge to get around the law that allows some farmers to get millions of dollars."

Congressman Jeff Flake and Wisconsin Rep. Ron Kind have proposed their own plan to reduce direct payments, labeled "Farm 21". If any of the proposals are successful it could mean drastic changes to many high-earning farm corporations.

Ken Cook: "If you're a very large farm corporation there ought to be a limit to the amount of taxpayer support."


Tags: agriculture government news technology USDA