by Tonya Allen
As Farm Bill negotiations continue, opponents of farm policy are again ratcheting up the rhetoric about all of the “rich and famous farmers” in America that are rolling in the dough.
It might make for a nice sound bite, but it’s hardly the truth.
There’s a “thin green line” of only 210,000 full-time U.S. farms that produce 80 percent of our food and fiber. These are the big, rich agribusinesses that farm opponents are talking about.
Virtually all of these farms are family enterprises facing tight margins to feed more and more consumers. In fact, for every dollar spent on food, farmers receive less than 12 cents for the raw products.
These family farms also brave exceptional risks unique to agriculture — from floods, to droughts, to late freezes to unexpected drops in commodity prices as crops come to harvest.
Hardly a recipe for riches.
As for the “famous” farmers, Farm Policy Facts (FPF) has been monitoring and debunking these outlandish attacks on rural America since 2007. But groups like the Environmental Working Group (EWG) continue to spin complicated webs of half-truths to garner media headlines.
Just this week, for example, the Heritage Foundation parroted the results of EWG’s “farm subsidy database,” which includes a number of “celebrity recipients.” What is rarely mentioned when this database is frequently trotted out is that most of these recipients are collecting conservation payments — not payments for agricultural production.
To put it another way: Beverly Hills residents aren’t out plowing fields, but they are collecting environmental subsidies, which EWG ironically supports.
For years, EWG has added years and farmers together to distort figures and make farm policy costs sound more expensive and egregious. EWG ignores the funding cuts made to farm policy while other federal policies continue to grow. And EWG still ignores the foreign farm subsidies used by some of the world’s biggest polluters to rapidly expand production.
Now, EWG has set its sights on crop insurance, and its tactics are just more of the same.
Last summer, EWG claimed that farmers were “praying for drought, not praying for rain,” a statement that is a clear reflection of EWG’s lack of understanding of the farm community and rural economy and its unwillingness to learn more about it.
The fact is, farmers had insurance deductibles so they shouldered at least $12.7 billion in losses before they collected a single check from their insurance companies. On top of that, farmers paid $4.1 billion out of their own pockets to purchase those insurance policies.
Not exactly “laughing all the way to the bank.”
National Crop Insurance Services president Tom Zacharias responded to EWG’s claim in an op-ed in The Hill earlier this year:
“While opponents of crop insurance criticize a policy that has been embraced by farmers, farm groups, bankers and politicians of all political stripes, it is noteworthy that critics have conveniently glossed over the fact that this policy ensures that taxpayers are never stuck with the whole tab, as they were in the era of ad hoc disaster assistance, and they can rest assured that the food production system is financially stable.”
It’s really no surprise that EWG has been so relentless in its attacks, considering its close ties to Brazil, a country that has the most to gain from dismantling U.S. farm policy and weakening its biggest competitor on the global stage.
But EWG isn’t the only one attacking our farm safety net. For-hire university economists have joined the chorus, making outrageous and, quite frankly, unprofessional claims, going so far as to compare farmers to cheap drunks at an open bar and claim that the USDA should be dismantled and turned into a museum for D.C. tourists.
We can’t expect these vocal farm policy opponents to change their tune since they are singing for their supper, but the rest of us have a responsibility to start asking them some tough questions, such as: who is funding you, how much are they giving, and how does that money figure into the public policy positions that you take?