WASHINGTON, June 22, 2016 - Farmers are a comparative bunch.

They talk to their neighbors to compare the rain gauge measurements after some needed moisture. They’ve been known to crunch the numbers on whether they should buy or lease that new tractor. In such a risky business, their very livelihoods could depend on making the right choice, so thoughtful comparison is key.

But they probably aren’t too keen on comparing how much money they received in government supports. Despite their concerns, the Environmental Working Group is doing it for them, allowing anyone with an Internet connection to determine the recipients of the $322 billion in farm subsidies doled out between 1995 and 2014 through their online database.

The information is there for public consumption and the public appears to be taking EWG up on it. EWG says there have been more than 766 million searches in the database since November 2004. And they have plans to keep adding more payment data.

While the information may be getting good traffic, many in agriculture think what’s on display is incomplete. Tom Sell with the Texas-based lobbying firm Combest, Sell & Associates recently said EWG is using a “nasty” means of characterization to display the figures without explaining clearly what they represent.

“They don’t put things in the right context,” Sell said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. “They try and couch it as people living off of these subsidies, when in fact it’s an economic policy that is not really meant about welfare for the farmers, so much as good, stable agricultural policy.”

The database offers a searchable forum to isolate recipients by state and zip code and find a total amount of payments received over almost 20 years (1995-2014), including one-time allocations such as disaster payments. But critics of the database say this information is incomplete.

Take, for example, California Republican Rep. Doug LaMalfa, whom EWG classifies as the recipient of the largest amount of farm payments of any member of Congress. He is part-owner of the DSL LaMalfa Family Partnership, which initial results show received about $5.3 million in subsidies during the 1995-2014 time period. But users have to click on the operation’s listing to learn that more than 99 percent of what the partnership received was rice subsidies, and what the farm once received (an average of $437,280 from 1999-2003) has since decreased sharply (an average of $186,578 from 2009-2013). And, the farm received nothing in 2014.

Further digging would also reveal - using information not available on the EWG website - that LaMalfa and his wife Jill own a third of the partnership, meaning that Rep. LaMalfa has not himself received the entirety of the $5.3 million.

While the initial search results may focus on the aggregate number, Scott Faber, EWG’s vice president of government affairs, insisted to Agri-Pulse that EWG does in fact provide “a lot of background” to explain the numbers on the screen.

“Anyone can get the full picture, year-by-year subsidy report,” he said. “You wouldn’t have to work hard… to understand why the reference-price or the old target-price programs would cause payments to be bigger in some years and lower in others. That basic information about how subsidies work is available.”

Faber was adamant that EWG is not opposed to crop insurance and is not using this database to try to kill the program. However, he thinks there should be a different split between what farmers and the government now pay for the program, with premium subsidies averaging about 60 percent.

“It’s hard to sustain the notion that the government’s paying two thirds of the cost of a revenue policy,” Faber said. “Americans love farmers, we’re always going to help farmers weather the ups and downs of agriculture, but at some point there’s a limit to our generosity.”

Changes in farm policy such as the elimination of direct payments and the creation of the Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) in the 2014 farm bill could also lead to very different figures when the 2015 data are eventually added to the site.

EWG hopes that further changes to farm policy are considered as Congress begins its deliberations over the next farm bill (the current legislation expires in 2018). Faber said the group would be focusing particularly on conservation programs to make sure they are getting the necessary environmental return.

“These are big pollution challenges that in some parts of the country are being met, but in other parts of the country are really being neglected, and the farm bill can really be an important part of the solution,” Faber said. “We’ve now reached a point where we can step back and look at” program spending and returns, he added.

There also will likely be a spat over cost sharing of crop insurance and the overall price tag of the bill, especially because the actual cost of the 2014 farm bill is turning out to be much higher than predicted. It remains to be seen whether EWG will approach this issue through suggested means testing, a changed cost share, or some combination of both, but Faber said something needs to change.

“There’s a way to strike a better balance between what we’re providing farmers and the amount of money that they contribute towards premiums,” Faber said. And when asked what that better balance would be?

“That’s a good question for Congress,” he said.


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