Billionaires Getting Farm Payments — Maybe

Every few years, Environmental Working Group, a conservation organization that advocates eliminating farm payments to the wealthy, compiles a list of billionaires receiving farm subsidies.

Their latest list, released today, shows 50 billionaires receiving agricultural subsidies since 1995.

How many are receiving them in 2013 is more of a mystery, as farm programs and reporting rules have evolved in ways that make following the subsidy money more difficult than in the past.

The listing released today comes from scouring the group’s database of farm-subsidy recipients, compiled through federal Freedom of Information Act requests. Among the names included are Microsoft Corp. co-founder Paul Allen, Texas oil investorLee M. Bass and several members of the Pritzker family,including Penny Pritzker, President Barack Obama’s commerce secretary.

Nearly all the subsidies — which total $11.3 million – were paid before 2008, the year a new farm bill tightened restrictions on subsidy payments to wealthy land-owners. That same bill also barred the release of details on ownership interests in farm properties, making new subsidy information more difficult to trace to recipients.

Federal rules also prohibit the release of the names of recipients who receive subsidies tied to crop insurance, a public-private partnership that has become a the biggest U.S. farmer-aid program, last year spending $14 billion in federal dollars for growers as well as companies including ACE Ltd. and a unit of Wells Fargo & Co. after last year’s drought pushed payouts to a record.

While the 2008 farm-bill limits may be preventing billionaires from getting money, under current rules it’s impossible to tell whether they are or not, said Craig Cox, a senior vice president with Environmental Working Group who is based in Ames, Iowa. That’s a concern to watchdogs who want the information to inform public debate over a farm bill being negotiated in Congress, one that includes a Senate proposal to reduce federal insurance-premium subsidies for producers with incomes over $750,000.

“We don’t know the answer” to who is receiving significant crop subsidies, Cox said in an interview. “We know what we know, but we know what we don’t know. With insurance subsidies rising, people should know who the money is going to.”

Crop-insurance operates through private contracts that would not normally be public information, said David Graves, manager for the American Association of Crop Insurers, a trade group in Washington. Aggregated recipient data, without a name, is publicly available, which is adequate for research purposes and to inform policy debates, he said.

“If anybody wants that information beyond aggregate data, they’re just looking for a 15-second sound bite to embarrass somebody,” he said in an interview. “The sanctity of the individual contract needs to be maintained.”

The farm bill authorizes all U.S. agriculture programs, including subsidies for crop producers, food aid to the needy, conservation programs and food-safety initiatives. The programs are reauthorized about once every five years.

 

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