All Shook Up

Today the Environmental Working Group put up their latest and greatest version of the (in)famous farm subsidy database. The new and improved database includes the latest numbers from USDA, released last fall, known as the “1614” database, after the section in the 2002 Farm Bill that required its release. The entrance to the database will be at www.mulchblog.com

The primary improvement is the ability to track farm program beneficiaries through multiple “pass-throughs”- partnerships and corporations set up to blow right by existing payment limits. Every time EWG updates their database, big commodity groups claim that EWG somehow “distorts” the data for its own purposes. Right. Ignore those comments, and look at the data for what it is: yet another illustration of the urgent need for payment limits in farm programs. It is also a great guide to how really big farms exploit loopholes in farm programs to make millions off taxpayers.

Of course, the first question everyone asks is: Who gets the most money from farm programs? Who’s The King?

As revealed in the new data, the current answer to that question is one Maurice Wilder, resident of Florida. Mr. Wilder received a total of $3,217,158 in farm program payments from 2003-2005.

Who is Maurice Wilder, you may ask? Well, Jon Bailey, resident research expert at the Center for Rural Affairs, reads the Omaha paper on a regular basis (I don't). Just today, he brings me the Sunday Omaha World-Herald, which has a lengthy article on water levels and irrigation in Nebraska and who is listed as one of the top irrigators in Nebraska? Go ahead and buzz in, look Alex straight in the eye, and answer “Who is Maurice Wilder!!!!”

Yes, our pal Maurice certainly gets around. While he isn’t busy farming farm programs for oodles of cash, he’s pumping oodles of Nebraska’s precious groundwater. Or, to be precise, somebody else is pumping it for him:

A man who owns 125 Nebraska irrigation wells has never drilled a single one. Maurice Wilder, 66, of Clearwater, Fla., primarily develops retirement communities, recreational vehicle parks and office buildings in Florida and Texas. And he's never lived here.

As noted above, The King of Farm Programs doesn’t confine himself to farming, either. Check out the following data on our little buddy:

• Total holdings nationwide estimated at $500 million in 2005.
• Owns 10 office buildings in the Tampa Bay, Fla., area with more than 1 million square feet of space.
• Has 4,500 mobile home lots and 12,500 recreational vehicle lots in Florida and Texas.
• Commercial and residential land holdings.
• Owns 200,000 acres of farmland and ranch land in eight states. That's roughly 312 square miles, or nearly the size of Douglas County.

Wow. Can somebody please tell me what The King has done to deserve $3.2 million from the US Treasury?

But this goes right to the heart of farm program ideology, which I wrote about in a previous post. If you believe farm programs exist to help farmers, the King and his millions are an outrage, an offensive example of wasteful farm program spending. But if you believe farm programs are about supporting the agriculture sector, well, who cares if the King is enormously subsidized? If he owns a company that produces more, he should get more money. With no limit, because we're supporting an industry here! And that is what is happening today, despite the claims of politicians and the media that payment limits do exist. (By the way, the King gets most of his money from commodity certificates, which were explicitly set up to evade payment limits).

So there will be a big ruffle-duffle over the data, with case studies and finger pointing and rhetoric all around. And when you hear organizations whine about how the King is an aberration, a lone example of farm programs gone bad, don’t believe it. All you need to remember is that what The King is doing is perfectly legal, because our elected representatives have made it that way.

EWG has done a great job with their media work. The Associated Press is all over this story, and there are many state-specific AP articles to make the story even more relevant to readers. A constant, though, is a quote from good old Charlie Stenholm:

Former Texas Rep. Charlie Stenholm, a longtime supporter of farm programs, was the top Democrat on the House Agriculture Committee before he left Congress in 2005. He now works as a Washington lobbyist and was the city's top beneficiary of farm subsidies from 2003 through 2005.

Stenholm, who received payments totaling $168,626 for farming wheat and cotton with his son on his Texas farm, says EWG has in the past organized its data in a misleading way to prove a point.

"Most American people do not support farm subsidies," Stenholm said. "Anything you can do to make them look as bad as they possibly can works to your advantage."

OK Charlie, I’m not sure how EWG reporting that you received $168,626 is organizing data in a misleading way. But Charlie, to his credit, has also seen the light on payment limits:

Stenholm does believe farmers should get serious about some kind of payment limitation in the future. "We've winked and nodded to each other long enough, now we've got to do something. There has to be changes, but I don't know if the adjusted gross income idea is the way to go.

"For years, we've dealt with the payment limitation issue," he adds. "I don't believe anyone should be limited to how big you should get – that's called efficiency. But I do believe there is a limit to how much you should be subsidized."

How about that. That certainly wasn’t the tune Stenholm was singing in 2002- that song was more along the lines of something by The King- but it’s good to see he’s converted. Somehow, though, his conversion didn’t make it into the EWG articles. The above quote is from Farm Futures, certainly a quality publication but not the most widely by any measure. It looks to me like Charlie is saying what he really thinks to Farm Futures while positioning himself as the stalwart defender of industrial agriculture when the AP asks him for a quote. But maybe that's just my cynicism coming out.

Anyway, check out the EWG database (http://www.mulchblog.com/) and get yourself all riled up. Then contact the nearest elected representative and let them know how you feel.

Update: You can also read the Center for Rural Affairs Official Statement on the new Environmental Working Group database.  

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