As Congress continues to struggle over the 2013 farm bill, the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), as well as conservation initiatives that could save the nation's soils and waters, both remain vulnerable to deep cuts. Yet, notes the Center for Effective Government, food security for low-income Americans via SNAP and ecological security via conservation could both continue to be fully funded at no extra cost if Congress were willing to cut back in another area of the farm bill: crop subsidy payments to big farmers.
Deep cuts in subsidy payments could be accomplished with no impact at all on the vast majority of U.S. farmers. That's because those subsidies are tightly focused on the nation's biggest agricultural landowners.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) provides a very thorough analysis —s tate-by-state, crop-by-crop, even farm-by-farm — of agriculture-related payments that are sent out under the farm bill. Their statistics on concentration are the most jarring. For example, the top 10 percent of commodity-payment recipients under farm bills between 1995 and 2012 raked in 77 percent of the total payout. The top 20% of farms got 91% of the money, while all other, mostly much smaller farms divided up the 9 percent that was left over.
According to EWG, the top twenty recipients—overwhelmingly corporate—received almost a half million dollars each in 2012. There's a simple explanation for why most of the farm bill's support goes to a small number of large farms: payments are closely related to a farm's acreage and volume of production, and, crucially, to the specific crops being grown. Dan Imhoff points out in his book about the Farm Bill, entitled Food Fight, that almost 70 percent of payments went to support only five crops: corn, cotton, rice, soybean, and wheat. And the greater the acreage one can put into one of those crops, the greater the opportunity to obtain federal payments. Congress's policy of forking over greater subsidies to larger farms has accelerated the trend toward fewer, larger farms in America.
In recent years, the farm-bill budget has been shifting away from direct commodity subsidy payments toward crop insurance. But whatever the type of subsidies going out the door of Congress—whether under commodity support, crop insurance, or conservation programs—bigger farms have the ability to grab the bulk of the subsidies.
What EWG president Ken Cook told Mother Jones in 2008 remains true today:
The first thing to keep in mind is that two-thirds of the farmers counted by the census of agriculture do not get farm bill subsidies. So most farmers don't get anything. They're small, they grow fruits and vegetables, raise cattle or horses, they live in rural areas and maybe raise a little hay and sell it. They're often not full-time operators — most farms are not — and they get no money. And even within the third that does get money from farm bill subsidy programs, the very large ones dominate ... We ought to reserve some of the money that we're saying we're giving to family farmers that are smaller and struggling and actually give it to them. And let the big guys roll the dice on the world market if they want to. The whole question on this farm bill, as it was with the last one, is shouldn't we put more reasonable limits on the maximum amount of money that someone can get through these programs?
Most of us—and even most members of Congress—would answer Cook's question in the affirmative. However, powerful agribusiness interests must first be overcome if the system is to be made fairer.
Stan Cox is a senior scientist at The Land Institute in Salina, Kansas, and author most recently of Any Way You Slice It: The Past, Present, and Future of Rationing (The New Press, 2013).