Farmers in just 47 of the nation’s 435 congressional districts collected 70 percent of all farm payments during the last decade.
And, none of those congressional districts are located in the Chesapeake watershed.
That’s according to the Environmental Working Group, an environmental think tank that analyzes farm subsidy data provided by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The group released new data in November.
Only one local congressman – Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, R-MD– managed to bring home more than $300 million in farm spending between 1995 and 2004, according to the analysis.
All of the other congressional districts in Virginia, Pennsylvania and Maryland collected less than $300 million—joining more than 300 congressional districts that divided just 15 percent of all farm spending over the last decade.
Overall, farmers in fewer than 100 congressional districts nationally collected 85 percent of all farm spending between 1995 and 2004.
Because farm spending is largely tied to the production of select crops, states with smaller farms growing a wide variety of crops are punished by the current farm subsidy system, said EWG president Ken Cook. The EWG has called for farm subsidy caps and other subsidy reforms, as well as increased spending on conservation programs, “which flows to all farmers and ranchers regardless of what they grow,” he said.
Conservation programs today account for less than 20 percent of all federal farm spending and have been cut by more than $3 billion since the passage of the 2002 Farm Bill to help pay for disaster relief.
“Farm Bill conservation programs are of critical importance to meeting the challenge of restoring the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. These programs bolster the efforts of our family farmers to be stewards of the land and provide the tools they need to limit farm runoff into our waterways,” said Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer. “Unfortunately, many farmers eager to participate in these programs are being turned away due to continued decreases in the conservation budget. This is particularly disconcerting in states like Maryland, whose farmers generally do not see significant benefit from the commodity price system authorized in the Farm Bill.”
Slightly more than 300,000 farms—out of more than 2 million nationally—collected more than $104 billion between 1995 and 2005—or about 72 percent of all farm spending. Legislators representing large producers of feed grains, rice, cotton and other crops that are eligible for subsidies dominate the House and Senate agriculture committees.
Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland collected, in combination, about 2 percent of $143 billion delivered to farmers between 1995 and 2004. Nationally, the states ranked 29th, 30th and 36th, respectively.
Farmers in only eight congressional districts in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland collected more than $100 million between 1995 and 2004, according to the analysis.
In contrast, farmers in every congressional district in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Iowa, Missouri and Illinois collected more than $300 million during the same period.
“Some individual cotton and rice farmers collected more farm spending over the last decade than some members of Congress brought home to their districts in the Bay watershed,” Cook observed.
Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland also collected less than their fair share of conservation spending, according to the analysis. The states collected about $275 million in conservation payments over the past decade—or a little more than 1 percent of $18.4 billion spent on conservation payments between 1995 and 2004.
Seven Midwestern states collected more than half of all subsidies and half of all conservation spending during this period.
One day after the EWG released its report, Congress refused to reform subsidy programs to limit payments and boost stewardship incentives.
An amendment to a Senate deficit reduction bill to limit annual farm payments to $250,000 failed —after garnering 66 votes just three years ago—because Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Saxby Chambliss, R-GA, argued that dramatic changes to the Farm Bill should not be made until the current bill is renewed in 2007.
Many senators were also worried the amendment would imperil the budget bill, which extends tax cuts.
But Cook, noting that the payment limit amendment would have restored funding to conservation programs, said the vote against the payment limits amendment offered by Sen. Charles Grassley, R-IA, was a “sellout of not only taxpayers but of more than 95 percent of the farmers in this country.”
Few farm families collect more than $250,000 a year, but senators who voted against the amendment were saying, in Cook’s estimation, that “farm payments of $250,000 per couple year after year, with no test of need and no requirement to repay, is just not enough.”
Senators Paul Sarbanes, D-MD, Barbara Mikulski, D-MD, Arlen Specter, R-PA, Rick Santorum, R-PA, Robert Byrd, D-WV, Hilary Clinton, D-NY, and Charles Schumer, D-NY voted for the Grassley amendment. Senators John Warner, R-VA, George Allen, R-VA, and John Rockefeller, D-WVA, voted against the amendment.
Delaware Senators Thomas Carper, D-DE, and Joseph Biden, D-DE, voted for payment limits in 2002 but voted against the Grassley amendment last month, citing the lower cap on payments.
Unlimited subsidies “allows the big guy to buy out his neighbors,” said Ferd Hoefner of the Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. “It’s just a nice big government down payment.”
One obstacle to reform will be a provision tucked into the Senate budget package that would extend most farm subsidies until 2011. Chambliss said the provision was designed to protect the long-term spending baseline for agriculture programs.
The House, led by House Agriculture Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte, R-VA, opposed extending subsidy programs in the budget bill. The final details of a budget package had not been worked out at press time.