Food Policy

The Farm Bill for Billionaires

Farm subsidies are a menace, especially when they line the pockets of the wealthy.


David Joles/ZUMA Press/Newscom

Earlier this week, reports indicated that Republicans in Congress, now taking another stab at passage of another bloated farm bill, would attempt to eliminate an Obama-era change that had reined in taxpayer-funded farm subsidies paid to many of the wealthiest American farmers. Also now on the chopping block, the reports claim, are limits on subsidies paid to family members serving as nominal farm co-owners—such as spouses or kids.

When these caps were put in place, they were little more than baby steps in the right direction. They were the first of many needed agricultural reforms, nearly all of which involve Congress and the USDA giving away less of your money. But elimination of these minor reforms would confirm almost all of what critics of both Washington lawmakers and farm subsidies have long contended: they are unnecessary, embarrassing, shambolic, shameless, ossified, counterproductive, abominable, and grotesque.

Congress's despicable plan to re-subsidize wealthy farmers was revealed just days before a new analysis from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that monitors farm subsidies, revealed that tens of thousands of Americans had received farm subsidies (or other taxpayer-supported payments) every year for more than three decades.

The totals EWG's research revealed are nauseating and outrageous. Using USDA data from 1985-2016, EWG determined that nearly 28,000 farmers had received more than $19 billion over more than three decades. Ten recipients received at least $8 million each over this period. Per farmer, the totals reveal these 28,000 or so farmers got an average of more than $675,000 of taxpayer subsidies over a little more than three decades.

Billionaires and multimillionaires have long been among those who receive farm subsidies.

"Typically, subsidies have benefited wealthy, larger farmers who farm just a handful of crops and who should not—and, flatly, do not—need them to succeed," I write in my recent book, Biting the Hands that Feed Us: How Fewer, Smarter Laws Would Make Our Food System More Sustainable.

Those who've received subsidies over the years, as I also note in my book, include a who's who of famous rich Americans who aren't farmers, including Paul Allen, Charles Schwab, Jon Bon Jovi, Bruce Springsteen, and Scottie Pippen.

But it's not just actors, sports stars, and software billionaires who've taken advantage of farm subsidies. Member of Congress are also in on the game.

For example, the family farm owned by former Rep. Marion Berry (D-Ark.), averaged nearly the $100,000 per year in subsidies during the nine years Berry was in Washington, according to a 2006 Arkansas Leader report, after he "sign[ed] over 25 percent of the stocks in his farm corporation to his son [and his] farm manager, to meet a federal requirement that 50 percent of the ownership of the farm corporation must be actively involved in the operation to be eligible for subsidies."

Former Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn.), for example, "received $251,000 in farm payments between 1995 and 2006," reported Politico, while railing against the excesses of government programs.

"The next farm bill should ensure that farmers are getting help during tough times, not an annual annuity," said Scott Faber, senior vice president with the Environmental Working Group, in an email to me this week. "Any farm bill that claims to promote self-sufficiency should end repeat subsidy payments, regardless of need, and make sure payments flow to farmers who live and work on farms, not to billionaires, city slickers and distant relations."

What should be done with farm subsidies? Faber's proposed reforms are a start. But so were the caps Republicans in Congress have now proposed to eliminate.

All farm subsidies should be eliminated immediately. No farmer should receive subsidies, regardless of size, profitability, crop choice, or other factors. Congress can't be trusted with farm policy.