Identifying some individuals who receive generous federal crop subsidies without going anywhere near a farm has gotten trickier. The Department of Agriculture, which paid $15.4 billion in 2009 subsidies, is no longer centralizing the data that made it easier to pinpoint individuals who receive farm payments through their affiliation in farming corporations, co-ops and other types of business partnerships.
“Recipients can hide behind ‘paper farms’ and reap thousands of dollars in a taxpayers program without being accountable for it,” said Don Carr, a spokesman for the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
EWG has used USDA information to put together a database on farm subsidy payments every three years since 2004. EWG contends that the subsidy program is costly for taxpayers and benefits wealthy, large growers of mostly cotton, corn, soybeans and wheat instead of being a meaningful safety net for small farmers.
For its 2007 database, EWG was able to obtain the names of nearly 500,000 individuals who received government checks through their ties to agri-businesses. For example, the EWG database showed a multi-millionaire Florida real estate developer was getting nearly $1 million each year in subsidies for corn farms he owned. The database that year also identified some wealthy farmers who weren’t supposed to receive subsidy checks in the first place.
But for the 2010 database, EWG wasn’t able to single out individuals collecting farm payments through farm business entities because the so-called Section 1614 database that aggregated payment information for these individuals is no longer maintained by the USDA. The names of these individuals and their subsidy payments can only be obtained by soliciting it from individual farm programs.
Why did the USDA discontinue the Section 1614 database? A provision in Congress’ 2008 farm law no longer requires the department to release this type of information. The new language says that the USDA “may” release the data instead of the USDA “shall” release it.
“The USDA said they don’t have the money to do it [centralized database], so they’re not going to do it,” Carr said.
According to the USDA, to update and program the Section 1614 database would cost an estimated $6.7 million, which was not appropriated in the 2008 farm law.
“Transparency is a priority for this administration and USDA, and information on farm payment recipients will be made available upon request on a program by program basis,” said Justin DeJong, a USDA spokesman.
EWG said it submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the USDA to obtain the information, and is waiting for a response from the department.
ABOUT THE DATA
What: Section 1614 database of individuals receiving farm subsidies through business partnerships
Where: U.S. Agriculture Department
Availability: No longer updated due to lack of funding in 2008 farm law
Send your tips on government data sets that you think should be made more accessible or user-friendly to firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also message us on Twitter or discuss the project on our Facebook page. We’re eager to hear what you turn up — full credit and links will be provided to individuals whose suggestions we use in our series.