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EWG lists shielded farm payment recipients

The Environmental Working Group ( has unveiled a new Web site that purports to reveal the names of at least 350,000 persons who previously have not been identified as recipients of federal farm subsidies.

The EWG, which has listed the names of thousands of other farmers and landowners and their payments on the Internet in recent years, says it hopes the new site will lead Congress to enact “broad reforms” of federal farm programs as it begins to write the 2007 farm bill.

It says the 350,000 names have been the recipients of almost a third of the $34.75 billion in farm program benefits paid to farmers between 2003 and 2005. The EWG first went public with its lists of farm payment recipients in November 2001.

In a press release distributed on the new Web site, EWG indicated it will continue its propaganda campaign against payments to the 20 percent of U.S. farmers who produce 70 to 80 percent of the nation's row crop commodities.

“While two-thirds of U.S. farmers receive no farm subsidy payments, American taxpayers have been writing farm subsidy checks to wealthy absentee land owners, state prison systems, universities, public corporations, and very large, well-heeled farm business operations,” said EWG President Ken Cook.

“Even if you live smack in the middle of a big city, type in a ZIP code and you'll find farm subsidy recipients. Surely we can come up with a smarter investment portfolio for agriculture and rural America than the list of 1.5 million subsidy beneficiaries we are publishing today,” said Cook.

Until now, Cook said, the 350,000 new names have benefited from layers of partnerships, joint ventures, limited liability corporations, cooperatives and other business structures. The new site was developed from previously unpublished USDA records that were compiled under a provision of the 2002 farm bill.

Cook said the disclosures include individuals whose subsidy benefits pass through one or more “plantation-scale farm businesses that produce vast quantities of subsidized cotton, rice and other crops.

“Many of those businesses receive millions in USDA crop subsidies each year, and according to the new USDA data, pass six-figure benefits through to many people,” said Cook. “In many cases, these individuals have not previously had subsidy benefits attributed to them by name.”

He said the new data shows that farm program benefits are highly concentrated in the hands of a small minority of subsidized individuals and operations, with the top 1 percent of beneficiaries claiming 17 percent of the crop subsidy benefits between 2003 and 2005. The average benefit reportedly was $377,484 per person for the three program years or over $125,000 each annually. The average adjusted gross income within the ZIP codes of those same top recipients was $45,853 in 2004 (the latest year for with IRS provides data from tax returns by ZIP code).

Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin appeared to agree with the EWG's claims that commodity payments have been concentrated in the hands of relatively few large-scale operators.

Harkin, a Democrat from Iowa, helped write the provision into the 2002 farm bill that required USDA to develop the Section 1614 database that attributes payments to individuals instead of stopping at the level of corporations and co-ops with previous databases.

“The current system of payment limitations is being abused and exploited in ways that just cannot be tolerated,” he said in a statement released by his office. “The report makes it harder than ever before to defend the status quo, and I believe it weakens the position of those who have defended big payments.

“Reforming this broken system is a matter of basic fairness to the American taxpayer. It is also a matter of recognizing that USDA should not pay out hundreds of thousands of dollars — or even well over a million dollars in cases — to billionaires. These are payments we can't afford, going to people who don't need them.”

Harkin said reasonable payment limitations are “common sense reform at a time when our federal budget is deep in the red, and we are scraping to find funds in the budget to help family-size farmers produce renewable energy and conserve our nation's soil, water, and habitat — and to help young people simply get a start in farming.”

House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson said his committee has not decided on new payment limit regulations. He said he has talked to southern lawmakers on the committee who expressed their concern about possible changes to the rules.

“For some people, no matter what we do it won't be enough,” said Peterson, a Minnesota Democrat. “Right now, we are working on extending the current rules beyond the commodity title to conservation and other programs. But nothing's been decided.”

Cook said the Farm Policy Analysis Database is the first in a series of 2007 farm policy reports the EWG plans to release this summer. Forthcoming analyses from EWG will examine farm subsidy payments to black farmers; the beneficiaries of billions of dollars of controversial “commodity certificate” farm subsidies; and farmers and ranchers who have sought USDA conservation assistance but been turned away for lack of funds.

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