City-Dwelling Investors Got $394M in Farm Subsidies Last Year


"Remember the last time you were smack in the middle of downtown Chicago or walking down a bustling street of Manhattan? Did you notice the sweeping farm vistas, the rich fields of corn and wheat?"

That's the (trick) question that opens an Environmental Working Group story about how U.S. farm subsidies continue to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars to people who don't live anywhere near a farm and whose daily lives have nothing to do with farming.

$394 million, to be exact, went last year to residents of about 350 cities with at least 100,000 people each, according to the latest EWG Farm Subsidy Database, just for owning or investing in a farming operation.

Sara Sciammacco explains:

You can be a city slicker in Miami Beach or Beverly Hills and collect farm subsidy payments. All you have to do is have an ownership interest in some Iowa farmland. While 60 percent of American farmers must get along without a dime in federal subsidies, the so-called farm "safety net" benefits a narrow band of the wealthiest agri-businesses and absentee land owners and the lobbyists who ensure that the subsidies keep flowing.

EWG wrote in a press release for the database:

From 1995-2010, just 10 percent of subsidized farms - the largest and wealthiest operations -collected 76 percent of all commodity payments, with an average total payment over 16 years of $447,873 per recipient - hardly a safety net for small farmers. Despite the "reforms" that supporters of the subsidy system claimed were incorporated into the 2008 farm bill, the top 10 percent of recipients still harvested 63 percent of commodity subsidies in 2010.

Lubbock, Texas tops the list with $24,839,154 in payments, but payments going to other cities aren't exactly chump change: 203 farm subsidy recipients in Miami got $2,472,071, and 179 residents in San Francisco got $1,094,172.

Visit EWG to see how much other cities, from New York to Memphis to Scottsdale, received.

"Our current system helps too few farmers and communities at too much cost to the taxpayers," Scott Faber, senior vice president of the Grocery Manufacturers Association. "Nothing captures this contradiction as clearly at the EWG farm subsidy database."

Crop Insurance

The database also covers how the taxpayer-funded crop insurance program—$4.7 billion in 2010—rivals other farm subsidies.

EWG explains:

Crop insurance supporters will argue that the program has been subjected to cuts, but those cuts affected the profits of insurance agents and in no way impacted risk management for farmers. At a time of robust farm income and a chorus of calls to cut government spending, these are prime examples of wasteful spending.

Last week, the House Agriculture Committee took a needed first step toward reforming the deeply flawed agribusiness subsidy programs by voting to suspend payments to the Brazil Cotton Institute next year - hush money intended to keep Brazil from retaliating over the United States' illegal domestic cotton subsidies.

Worse Than Bush?

To top it off, EWG goes on to explain how the Obama administration has been less transparent than Bush's: that the USDA has made less information about subsidy payments available through FOIA, and has allowed recipients of subsidies to mask their urban-dwelling, non-farming identities "behind corporate entities and paper farms."

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