by Marion Nestle
May 6 2010

Where do farm subsidies go? Now we know!

Yesterday, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) released the latest update of its highly entertaining farm subsidy database. The links cover $245 billion in federal farm subsidies distributed from 1995 -2009.  The site lets you search for subsidies by state, county, congressional district, and specific farm, and by commodity.  There is also a national summary.

As the EWG puts it:

taxpayer-funded federal farm subsidies lavished on the wealthiest farms have resisted even modest efforts for reform. Introduced after the Great Depression and once the savior of struggling small family farms, these subsidy programs have been co-opted by the largest agriculture interests and now work to ensure profits for plantation-scale growers of corn, soybeans, rice, cotton and wheat.

I went straight to New York State.  Alas, my home state only ranks #30 in payments and our farmers only got $156 million in 2009.  Some of them got as little as $1,000 or $2,000 (numbers in Illinois, Kansas, and Iowa go into the millions).  Even so, corn and dairy farmers in Rep. (now Sen.) Gillibrand’s district did better than the New York average last year.

For a quick lesson in the complexity of farm supports, take a look at the chart of corn subsidies in New York State from 1995 to 2009.  No wonder farm supports are so hard to understand.

Let’s hope this site inspires people to start gearing up for dealing with the next Farm Bill, coming up in a year or so.  The EWG’s farm subsidy primer is a great place to begin.  Happy searching!

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  • Anthro

    This is a fascinating site! My state (Wisconsin) is 15th. I think it’s good news that the largest subsidy was around $250,000. No corporate names jumped out at me and the majority seemed to be small or reasonable sized dairies. I’ll have to study it more, but I think (hope) this is good news. The site also said that 60% of WI farmers received NO subsidies at all.

    Thanks once again for sharing such an enlightening piece of data.

  • I also have been looking this over in my spare time. I feel like I’m merely scratching the surface of an enormously dense system, but I’m also reading through the 2008 Farm Bill.

    Anthro, as a Western New Yorker, I’m curious as to whether the largest subsidy in my area went to a farm under contract from a large corporation. It’s my understanding that a lot of “small” farmers are effectively in a debt cycle to larger corporations. Additionally, the residency of one of the two shareholders in my local farm is Texas. I hope this gives you ideas for your research.

  • Federal subsidies for food production. Take a look at these numbers:

    * Meat/Dairy — 73.8 percent
    * Grains — 13.2 percent
    * Sugar/Oil/Starch/Alcohol — 10.7 percent
    * Nuts/Legumes — 1.9 percent
    * Vegetables/Fruits — 0.4 percent

    That’s right – just 1.9 percent for nuts and legumes and 0.4 percent for fruits and vegetables. As a result, a salad often costs you more than a Big Mac.

  • Anthro

    @ Michael

    Thanks for your input. I hadn’t considered sub-contracting, but it’s highly likely, sadly, that you are correct. I do know that this goes on with eggs and poultry. I’m pretty sure my superficial browsing leading to optimism needs a closer look. Wisconsin truly has been a state full of small family farms, but I am also aware that this has been changing for some time now.

    Well, it was nice to see a bright spot for a little while. I’ll keep buying from small local farms and producing what I can on a city lot.

  • @ Anthro

    In my initial plunge into the 1,770 pages of the Farm Bill, I did find a provision attempting to prevent a producer taking payments for more than one farm. However, “producer” has several definitions in the bill, so I would be concerned that a farm could be operated by a “producer” and also owned by another company. The few farms I’ve looked at have a company that receives subsidy payments and another company that doesn’t. Perhaps, one company leases the land to another. I think it will take more digging to see whether one company or individual is collecting payments from smaller companies under its control in order to avoid the aforementioned provision. I think it would be relatively easy.

    Enjoy Wisconsin, and don’t get discouraged.. there’s plenty of bright spots around.

  • * correction. The provision does not prevent ownership of two operations, but rather instructs the Secretary of Agriculture to attempt to prevent people from claiming the same operation twice.

    Still reading…

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  • Sadly, you also see the influence of subsidies in the Food Pyramid. The Food Pyramid is not designed to help you make sound dietary choices but to allow food companies to increase their profits. If we are ever going to improve the current health care crisis, our nation’s food policy must be addressed and corrected.