The Big Farm Scam

The President of the Environmental Working Group explains why the farm bill that just passed Congress represents a monumental opportunity lost.

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It’s something environmental activists and almost everyone in DC can attest to: the farm bill is a boondoggle. A pork-laden behemoth that is sold to the public as family farmers’ only hope for survival in a modernizing world, the bill is written by lawmakers from agricultural states to protect the interests of large, cash-flush agricultural operators who spread around hundreds of millions in lobbying funds and donations. The end result? A bill that doesn’t do enough for the environment, subsidizes all the crops needed to prolong America’s obesity epidemic, and takes money out of the pockets of third-world farmers.

With urban lawmakers signed on because of huge food stamp provisions, the farm bill passed the House on Wednesday and the Senate on Thursday. President Bush has threatened a veto, arguing that the legislation is bloated and that rich farmers — who are seeing their highest incomes in a decade — get too much in subsidies. Ken Cook is the president of the Environmental Working Group and a critic of the farm bill’s subsidy system. The billions distributed every year, he argues, ought to actually go to the dirt-streaked men in overalls who are invoked in the farm lobby’s PR campaigns. Moreover, with food prices skyrocketing, the opportunity was ripe to shift the bill’s priorities away from subsidizing rich growers of corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, and cotton, and toward conservation and nutrition.

The legislation’s backers in both parties would argue that it does just that. Cook says the farm bill remains yet another policy instrument by which the rich get richer and the poor get the pitchfork.

Mother Jones: There’s an impression that the farm bill is all that keeps farmers in overalls riding tractors from falling over the precipice. How accurate is that?

Ken Cook: The farm bill does definitely provide help to a lot of family farmers of exactly the type we conjure up in American Gothic style. That’s not the problem with the bill. The problem is that so much of the money that goes out through these farm programs goes to very large, commercial operations that are getting bigger all the time and basically buying up those family farms with the mom and pop in overalls working dawn to dusk. Ten percent of the beneficiaries over the last ten years have gotten over 70 percent of the subsidy money. And so the concern, which, interestingly enough, we shared most with the White House this time around, was that too much money is being funneled to large, profitable farming operations.

MJ: Why is the 10 percent that is receiving the majority of the subsidies in such a great position? Is it because they earn more and are thus eligible for more? Or because they live in certain areas and raise certain crops?

KC: 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. And it’s getting more and more concentrated all the time.

I’m not exactly a free trader here, but I am sympathetic to the argument that at some point these big operators ought to be on their own. They’re so big and so efficient and so effective at their work. 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? And further — this is what the President is talking about — if you’re wealthy enough, maybe you shouldn’t get any money. If you have an adjusted gross income, the President said, of $200,000 or more, you ought to be out of these farm programs.

MJ: So the president is threatening to veto the bill because it does too much to help the wealthy?

KC: Honest to god, he is. I’ve been describing it as a parallel universe.

MJ: This gets a larger question of how conservatives in Congress, who supposedly value fiscal discipline and the free market, have let subsidies of this nature exist for so long.

KC: Both parties have abandoned principles they supposedly hold dear. The Democrats have abandoned their principle of standing up for the little guy and for fairness and not letting big operators scarf up all the money. Republicans have abandoned a principle equally central to their ideology, which is, we ought not to have the government involved in everyone’s business to the degree they are, especially when someone is doing very well. I mean, here you have a president who vetoed S-CHIP for the sake of limiting the enrollment of families that he thought were too wealthy to enroll. He was alleging S-CHIP would let middle class families participate. Well, here we have the same kind of situation with agriculture but we’re talking not about modest access to an insurance program, were talking about outright government grants, that don’t even have to be repaid, of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

MJ: So what is it about the farm bill that makes both parties abandon their core principles?

KC: It’s the intensity of a core group of subsidy recipients and a lobby they have nourished over the years to hang onto this money at all costs. And you’ve got this common interest amongst a fairly small number of legislators. Although every senator has agricultural constituents, the intensity to hang onto these abusive and wasteful programs is rooted in the Midwest and the South.

MJ: But you don’t necessarily need to live in those regions to get subsidies, right?

KC: You can find recipients right here in DC. Absentee owners exist everywhere. Let’s say you and I are brothers. You came to town to be a journalist, I came to work at an environmental group, but we both came from a farm family in Arkansas. If mom and dad give us 5,000 acres in their will, we don’t have to go back down to Arkansas and farm. We’ll get the direct payments automatically for that rice and cotton mom and dad kept growing, and on top of that we’ll get other payments.

MJ: The relatively small number of lawmakers you mentioned always manage to find their way onto the agricultural committees in the House and Senate.

KC: Oh, yes. That is absolutely critical. We’ve published the names of all subsidy recipients online. If you just look at who is on the agriculture committees, their districts and states account for 40 or 50 percent of all the subsidy money.

MJ: That would explain why two-thirds of farmers nationwide don’t get anything. They don’t live in the right places.

KC: And they don’t grow the right things. Something like 92, 93 percent of the subsidy money goes to five crops: corn, wheat, soybeans, rice, and cotton. That’s because, first of all, they’re crops that occupy most of the cropped acreage in the country. Fruits and vegetables and so forth are really a tiny fraction of the landscape. Corn last year was over 90 million acres. Soybeans and wheat likewise are way up there. Cotton is down to nine or 10 million acres, but that is almost as much as the acreage of all the fruits and vegetables we plant nationwide.

So you’ve got a lot of acreage, a lot of beneficiaries, hundreds of thousands of farmers who are engaged in growing those commodities, which are, by the way, major export crops. And there’s an export imperative for them, or at least there was until ethanol came along to absorb some of the excess corn.

MJ: When you say export imperative…

KC: They grow way too much for the US market, so they go to get rid of this stuff somewhere, and for years the only option any of those crops had was to sell it overseas, until biofuels came along and became a way to absorb surplus production. That’s what ethanol policy in this country is really all about. Getting rid of corn.

Ethanol pulls up corn prices. We’ll be putting a third of our corn crop into ethanol this coming year and we would never have bothered to do that if the corn lobby hadn’t insisted we do it, in order to boost their prices. Corn farmers are making a fortune in the marketplace, a record net income. Net income for agriculture is 50 percent above the average from the last 10 years.

MJ: And this is all tied to trade policy as well, right?

KC: We’ve been in favor of both maintaining our subsidies to our producers and opening markets abroad. We usually hear the argument in favor of subsidies for all these exported crops contorted so it sounds something like, “We don’t want to become dependent on foreign countries for our food, in the way we are for our oil.” And the irony here of course is that we are desperate to get other countries dependent on us for their food. Our approach at the World Trade Organization is to, the best we can, reduce barriers to trade and trying to get competitors in the world market to lower their subsidies in concert with us, as opposed to unilaterally disarming. But what you have is two countries and in both farm interests and the subsidy lobby basically get to make the call on whether we should lower subsidy levels. And of course their decision comes back a resounding no.

MJ: Apples and pears aren’t being subsidized. What does the farm bill do in terms of Americans’ health and diet?

KC: It doesn’t really do very much. There is a lot of talk about nutrition from supporters of the bill because they are trying to make the suggestion that we’re spending a lot more money on fruits and vegetables for schools and we’re doing a lot more in general to promote farmers’ markets and so on. But when you look at the numbers, the investments here are really very minimal compared to the money we are still going to be lavishing on the subsidy lobby.

Let me just give you one example. One of the good things about the bill is we’ve expanded a program to provide fruit and vegetable fresh snacks to kids in poor schools. We’re going to be spending a billion dollars on that program. However, that’s over 10 years. You’ll hear from supporters, “$4 billion for conservation, $10.3 billion for nutrition, $1 billion for the school snack program.” But they never say “over 10 years.”

The school snack program spends money on kids who are in schools where 80 percent or more of the kids qualify for the federal school lunch program. Which is a very poor school. We’re talking about probably under 3 million kids nationwide. That’s a great thing. It’s just not enough money. We should have spent 10 times as much on those snacks. Then the fruits and vegetables might go to schools where only 50 percent of the kids qualify for the school lunch program.

MJ: What are the environmental concerns about the bill?

KC: To start with, the $4 billion increase on conservation spending is over 10 years. So the actual increase in conservation in the first year is $293 million. It’s not very much. What we’re faced with now in the Midwest is a dramatic environmental crisis that hasn’t gotten the coverage it deserves. What’s going on with this ethanol boom is shocking. We are plowing up everything in site. And we have huge conservation challenges that will not be responded to because we only got this miserly increase in conservation.

The National Wildlife Foundation came out strongly against the bill because what we’ve done is that we’ve offered, in addition to all these other inducements to plow up the landscape and grow crops for ethanol, we’ve also offered a new $3.8 billion permanent disaster program that will mostly benefit the driest parts of the country. We will basically be saying, “If you go out and plow up fragile grassland and release that vast amount of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere — plus destroy wildlife habitats and cause soil erosion problems — don’t worry about that. We’re not going to hold you accountable for the environmental impacts.”

MJ: So why don’t health groups and environmental groups fight back?

KC: Take a look at Obama’s remark yesterday, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” A lot of groups collapse around that. They promise their donors they’re going to go out and fight for money for nutritious food, they’re going to fight for subsidy reform, and they’re going to fight for conservation, and then in the end, they fold.

Whereas the cotton guys never fold. The rice guys never fold. For those guys, these subsidies are in their blood. They’ve gotten this money for so long, they think it’s theirs. They’re very intense about it and they hire lobbyists to make sure they keep the flow going. The fact of the matter is it’s the squeaky wheel that gets the oil. Fruit and vegetable growers could have gone forward and said, “We’re going to take on the subsidy lobby. We think it’s time to expand the school snack program. We think it’s time to invest in organic agriculture.” But we have not had enough pressure on politicians to confront them with these inequities. Here’s the example I like to use. There is one cotton farm down south that got $3 million in subsidies in fiscal year 2005. That is roughly equivalent to the amount of money we spent in 2005 on the only dedicated research program for organic agriculture in the whole country. One cotton farm got the same as all of organic research. That’s the kind of inequity that we’re talking about.

MJ: Is this farm bill better than previous ones?

KC: In some ways. But I don’t think there’s ever been a worse farm bill from the standpoint of the opportunity for reform versus what we ended up with. I don’t think you’ll ever be able to find a farm bill where the supporters of it don’t say it’s a historic farm bill and that there’s never been a better one. That’s what Nancy Pelosi is saying now. But the truth is, you have look at it in context. And in the context of these times, this is a complete sellout. Because there was momentum for reform and the prices for subsidized crops are so high. This would have been the time to say, “We don’t need to spend $5 billion this year, $3 billion of it on corn. We can move some of that money, at least for a couple of years while prices are high. Let’s prop up and expand the conservation programs. Let’s give more than a few bucks a month to food stamp recipients. Let’s put more money into the school snack program. Let’s make it a $3 billion dollar program and serve three times as many kids.”

All that stuff could have been done. But they didn’t do it. They blinked.


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This is the rubber-meets-road moment: the early days in our first fundraising drive since we took a big swing and merged with CIR to bring fearless investigative reporting to the internet, radio, video, and everywhere else that people need an antidote to lies and propaganda.

Donations have started slow, and we hope that explaining, level-headedly, why your support really is everything for our reporting will make a difference. Learn more in “Less Dreading, More Doing,” or in this 2:28 video about our merger (that literally just won an award), and please pitch in if you can right now.

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