COLUMN: EWG postings tell only partial truth

But many farmers are becoming convinced that the World Wide Web postings have only served to confuse the issue – either accidentally or on purpose, depending on what motives you impute to the Washington-based EWG.

Aside from the fact that the EWG never points out that the payments mainly follow production, it makes no distinctions between who receives the payments.

“The Grassley-Dorgan amendment was passed in large part due to the Environmental Working Group statistics regarding the concentration of payments in the top 10 percent of recipients,” a farmer writes. “These are greatly distorted by the number of share-rent landlords included in the data base.”

The writer notes that in summarizing the data for Richland Parish in Louisiana, the EWG says the farm programs are unfair because the top 10 percent received 70 percent of the payments.

“What they don’t say is that almost every producer in Richland Parish is included in the top 10 percent of recipients,” he noted. “The bottom 90 percent are almost entirely share-rent landlords who receive a portion of farm program payments as part of their rental agreement.”

Looking at the concentration of program payments to those recipients that are actually producers, the top 10 percent receive about 20 percent of the payments, he said. “This is a much more accurate portrayal of the concentration of benefits to the top 10 percent of farmers in Richland Parish, but it would not have created the type of outrage that the Environmental Working Group was seeking.”

On its Web site, the EWG says, “robust programs are needed to support farmers’ incomes while helping them protect natural resources and the environment. But we also think current policy has badly failed almost everyone in agriculture but the very largest producers of a few favored crops.

It’s difficult to argue with such “motherhood and apple pie” statements. It’s true that many farmers and ranchers don’t receive government payments. What the EWG doesn’t point out is that the organizations representing those farmers have never asked for such payments and, in some cases, have policies rejecting them.

In a recent e-mail complaining about our coverage of the EWG, a spokesman cited correspondence from small farmers applauding its posting of the information, confirming their suspicions that the programs are “heavily tilted to bigger producers.” But what does the EWG consider a small farmer? Someone with 50 acres?

Unfortunately, the EWG tries to paint with a very broad brush an issue that is extremely complex; one that could impact the futures of thousands of farmers whose mistake was trying to grow bigger to achieve the economies of scale government economists have been suggesting for decades.

I suspect that for all its protests to the contrary, the EWG shares the same agenda as other environmentalists: wiping out large-scale commercial agriculture, so that we can go back to some idyllic version of small organic farms that they somehow think can feed America and a share of the world’s population.

The Environmental Working Group had the following response to this column:

“We already have an overproduction problem that is a partial result of these subsidies driving production, rather than the market. In every crop category, we’re exporting large amounts, so the feed-the-nation argument is a house of cards. Don’t take that from some watchdog organization. That sentiment is shared by folks with some pretty solid conservative credentials - such as George Bush, Richard Lugar (R-IN), and Ann Veneman - all of whom criticized both the House and Senate bills for their overemphasis on commodity subsidies.

“The fact is that 60 percent of farmers and ranchers in America don’t get subsidy money. As The New York Times story yesterday (April 9) suggested, the positions of commodity trade groups to which you refer are against expanding commodity payments to include their crops - not against receiving farmland conservation programs payments, which those producer groups have clearly and repeatedly said they favor.

“The biggest producers do get most of the money. We understand the co-op you’ve referred to with 9,000 members told reporters it got $98 million over the last six years. We’ve never contested that these producers tend to produce bigger yields, but so what? It is a fact that they are the biggest and get the most money, which gives us, and lot of small producers concerns that the big producers use their subsidy money to buy out neighbors and out compete them in the rental markets. That’s a concern USDA and the Bush administration have voiced recently in their October report. Only if one thinks increasing concentration in agriculture is a positive thing should one think that giving the most to the biggest is a good principle.

“Said another way, the general pattern in government programs is to help those struggling, small operations. We have a Small Business Administration; we don't have a Large Business Administration to subsidize IBM or Microsoft.

“Churchill said the definition of madness is doing the same thing repeatedly and expecting a different result. We’ve spent $90 billion in the last six years to save farmers while record numbers of them have gone bankrupt, prices have fallen because of overproduction, and agriculture has become increasingly concentrated. Doing more of the same will produce more of the same, it’s fair to assume. Is this the future for rural communities that we as a country want?”

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