Farm Bill Passes, Taxpayers Lose Out | Civil Eats

Farm Bill Passes, Taxpayers Lose Out

Provisions in the farm bill passed by the Senate this week have set the stage for Big Ag to win a monumental shell game. The hapless victims will be American taxpayers. 

Currently, commodity farmers get handouts totaling about $5 billion per year from the government in direct subsidies, whether they need them or not. Large farms and agricultural corporations receive most of this largesse. Under the new Senate bill, these subsidies would disappear and be replaced by a $9-billion expansion in crop insurance support, which reimburses farmers for losses caused by weather.

Crop insurance is really just handout by another name. The government picks up nearly two thirds of the cost of premiums. It also pays private insurance companies more than $1 billion a year oversee the policies. But at least in theory, benefits are paid out only to the farmers who actually need them.

This is where political sleight-of-hand enters the picture. Commodity subsidies received by individual farmers are part of the public record and are published in a database maintained by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, DC nonprofit.

In contrast, crop insurance payouts are confidential. Even though their money is being spent, taxpayers have no way of knowing who gets how much. How convenient, if you happen to be a wealthy farmer who might not want others to know how deeply your face is planted in the public trough.

Take the example of Congressman Stephen Fincher, a Tennessee Republican. Last month he vigorously argued in favor for slashing $20 billion from the farm bill’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, more commonly known as food stamps) which helps feed nearly 50 million needy Americans.

In support of his stance, he hauled out the Bible, quoting from Thessalonians: “The one who is unwilling to work shall not eat.”

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What the Congressman, who is also a well-to-do farmer, failed to mention is that over the past dozen years he has pocketed farm bill crop subsidies totaling $3.5 million. Last year his take, according to the EWG, was close to $70,000 in subsidies alone, more than twice the median income for Tennessee families.

At least Rep. Fincher’s hypocrisy was exposed. If the provisions of the Senate bill become law, similar shenanigans may never see the light of day.

As the House of Representatives begins to take up the farm bill, lawmakers who like to base their legislative decisions on Biblical quotations should reflect upon the following verse from Luke: “For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known.”

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A former contributing editor to Gourmet magazine, Barry Estabrook is the author of Tomatoland: How Modern Industrial Agriculture Destroyed Our Most Alluring Fruit and Pig Tales: An Omnivore's Quest for Sustainable Meat which was published in May 2015. He blogs at Read more >

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  1. Harry Hamil
    Having worked for 35 years in the property-liability insurance business and 18 years reviving local, healthy food, I have no question that Barry Estabrook's statement, "Crop insurance is really just handout by another name," is clearly wrong.

    Had Mr. Estabrook watched his almost ready to harvest crop destroyed in minutes by a hailstorm or had $60,000 worth of herbs sucked out of his greenhouse in a matter of a few minutes, as friends of mine have, he might see there is a clear difference between crop subsidies and insurance subsidies.

    Which makes more sense, to subsidize farmers' purchases of needed insurance or providing payments for uninsured losses through FEMA?

    There are important improvements that need to be made in crop insurance to tailor it to fit the needs of those of us growing for local markets. Would that people like Mr. Estabrook would advocate for those needed changes.

    Sadly, our movement is being crippled by people like Mr. Estabrook who too often know only what they’ve learned from those who favor the same position they do. How much research time was spent on those who disagree with him? Rather, he and our movement would be a lot better off if he and we would quit demonizing people and ideas that are different from ours. The schism in farming created by his and others’ demonizing of production ag is one of the primary reasons that we have such a pitiful record in the legislative and regulatory arena.

    Last, but not least, it is important for anyone reading this to known that I have a bias against Mr. Estabrook. As part of the coalition that effected the Tester-Hagan amendment during the railroading through of the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), I can testify how our efforts to slow down and discuss that ground breaking legislation were badly hurt by foolishness that he and other journalist published then and continue to publish now.

    A simple web search on my name in quotation marks will reveal that I am who I say I am. If it anyone wants to discuss this or any other issue about local health food or to critique me, please write me at Or call me, I'm easy to find.

    And that goes for you, too, Mr. Estabrook.

    This comment was uploaded at 8:13 AM on 6/12/13.

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