Did you see how much Joe got?


I’m getting tired of this small farmer against big farmer stuff. I’m not a big farmer, somewhere in the middle. A small farmer gets paid the same percentage as the big farmer per acre. If he wants a bigger check, then go out and rent more. Along with that, however, comes a lot more risk. You guys might as well start a database on who inherited a big chunk of land, who won the lottery, etc., while you’re at it.

OK, count me in as one of the thousands who have logged on to the Environmental Working Group Web site to check out the farm subsidy payment lists.

I checked out the Ohio list and pulled up a couple of individual county listings. Lots of names. Lots of money.

In case you haven’t heard the latest coffee shop talk in farm country, the controversial Environmental Working Group used USDA data obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests and is posting the names of everyone in the country who received federal farm subsidy payments in 1996 through 2000 – and how much they’ve received. The Web site, http://www.ewg.org, lets you search by state, by county, by zip code, even by name.

The Environmental Working Group says it assembled the information because “current policy has badly failed almost everyone in agriculture but the very largest producers of a few favored crops.”

The information, the activist group says, points out the inequities of program vs. nonprogram crops. Only 9 percent of producers in California, where specialty crops abound, received subsidies in those years, compared to 75 percent of Iowa farmers and 79 percent of producers in North Dakota.

In Ohio, approximately 88,500 farmers, or 42 percent, received farm payments totaling nearly $2 billion; in Pennsylvania, 22 percent received payments.

As you can imagine, the information has resulted in debate in the media as well as in the coffee shop. The debate is healthy, but the information is also misleading – you don’t know how many individual families are supported by a farm’s payment, you can’t assume the recipients of large payments are not family farms, you don’t know how many acres are farmed, you don’t know how much is through CCC loans that get paid back, etc.

“Successful Farming’s” Web site discussion groups (http://talk.agriculture.com) have been weighing in on the subject, including the comment at the opening of this column. Reactions range from “mind your own business” to “why pay people who raise 500,000 bushels of wheat? Corporate farms should not be eligible for government programs.”

A poignant online entry from Monday adds: “… regardless of government payments, we all farm ‘at our own risk.’ We are at the mercy of the weather, markets, vendors, landlords … etc. We do it out of love of the land, love of our children and love for our God. My husband and I are barely ‘gardeners’ in the world of farming nowadays and, yes, we do accept gov’t payments. There are years that if we hadn’t, we’d have been packing up our two kids and heading for some larger area, far away from our families.”

The hubbub is a public relations coup for the environmental group: Everyone is talking about farm subsidies at the same time as Congress is debating the next farm bill.

The Environmental Working Group will tell you its interest lies in creating greater support for conservation programs in a new farm bill. But this is the same group that created the Web site, http://www.BanDursban.org. This is the same group that was blasted by respected research and science experts for using bad science and scare tactics in its report, “Overexposed: Organophosphate Insecticides in Children’s Food,” among others.

“Certainly the EWG’s search for the absolute truth is laudable,” writes biostatistician and lawyer Steven Milloy on the Web site junkscience.com. “But the group should try a little introspection. The EWG is well known for spreading fear of pesticides through misinformation.”

“You want to be on the list, too?” asks one online debater. “Land is for sale everywhere. Try farming yourself.”


Up-to-date agriculture news in your inbox!