Big Money, the Farm Bill and Family Farms vs. Industrial Agriculture
Every year, American tax dollars subsidize farms across the nation, in a system designed to provide stability and support to the farmers who feed our nation. Unfortunately, the unchecked influence of big money in politics means policies direct our tax dollars to large and corporate agricultural operations rather than smaller family farms—and impact everything from the quality of our food and the health of rural America to immigration policy and the GDP.
The Farm Bill that Congress passed near the end of the 2018 session—projected to cost $867 billion over 10 years—provides many examples of the deep influence big money holds over Capitol Hill, and how corporate interests overshadow those of everyday Americans—in this case, small-scale family farmers.
American farms provide a perfect example of the real-world impacts of the concentration of wealth and power over a critical sector of our nation’s economy, one that affects every one of us dependent on farms for our food.
The agriculture industry accounts for more than $1 trillion of the annual U.S. economy and employs more than 3 million people. Since 2013, America’s farmers and ranchers have seen a 50% drop in net farm income. Most farmers are in dire straits, as they face higher operating costs, record-low commodity prices and the effects of widespread flooding. As incomes drop, commercial-scale farms grow bigger as smaller operations succumb sooner to financial pressures.
Coming before Congress about every five years, the Farm Bill has a major impact on the agriculture industry—and that naturally attracts a large amount of lobbyist attention. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, more than 500 agriculture-related groups and companies hired lobbyists in 2017 and 2018 to advocate for them during Farm Bill negotiations. That ranks it as the fourth-most lobbied bill in the 115th Congress.
What do big agriculture donors reap with their dollars? Here’s a look.
Big Money Talks in Dark Rooms
Critics from both ends of the ideological spectrum said the Farm Bill reinforces a corporate welfare status quo, citing a study that shows the top 10 percent of farms account for 77 percent of commodity subsidies—collecting a total of $158 billion over the last two decades.
Another analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture data found that about half of federal subsidies in 2015 went to farmers with household incomes over $150,000. That USDA report also shows that commodity payments, which farmers receive when crop prices or farm incomes drop below a particular level, in 2015 were just above $5 billion—$2.5 billion of which went to $150,000-plus households.
That means half of federal agriculture subsidies and commodity payments (funded by our tax dollars) went to farmers with incomes above the 2015 median U.S. household income of $55,775—raising questions around whether the programs are benefiting those who truly need them or those who lobby lawmakers most.
Two provisions in the 2018 Farm Bill designed to reduce subsidies to high-income farms were removed late in the legislative negotiating process, angering Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, one of 13 GOP senators who voted against the legislation.
In the “dark rooms of conference committee meetings,” Grassley said, negotiators removed a provision to lower the cap on subsidies to high-income farms and kept a loophole that allows agri-businesses to designate family members as “farm managers” who can receive up to $125,000 in subsidies, even if they don’t work on the farm.
“So far, the bill has not won much praise outside of Washington lobby groups, whose members will receive more taxpayer subsidies from a few select changes,” Grassley said, adding that the bill will allow corporate farms to continue to “manipulate the system” and create more challenges for new and small farmers.
As farm incomes have plunged, government payments to farmers grew from $8.05 billion in 2012 to $8.94 billion in 2017—a trend that’s likely to continue under the new Farm Bill.
Backing Leaders and Lobbyists
Campaign coffers also grew thanks to the agriculture industry. Lobbyists involved in 2018 Farm Bill negotiations gave nearly $1.7 million to the campaigns of House and Senate Agriculture Committee members—aiming to influence congressional votes favorable to their ag-industry backers. The top Agriculture Committee member recipient was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky who brought in $183,425.
Agribusiness ranked ninth in 2018 for lobbyist spending out of 13 measured sectors such as health care, transportation and construction, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, at more than $134 million total.
Top-spending agribusiness lobbyist groups for 2018, according to the center, included $3.67 million from Bayer AG, a global enterprise with crop science and animal health divisions that recently purchased herbicide producer Monsanto Company (which has its own PAC); $3.15 million from American Farm Bureau, which represents agricultural producers; and $2.65 million from CropLife America, a trade association for pesticide manufacturers, formulators and distributors.
Who Does the Farm Bill Help?
From its start with a 1985 benefit concert to raise money for family farmers, the nonprofit Farm Aid continues to advocate for an agriculture system built around family-run farms. But in its analysis of the 2018 Farm Bill, Farm Aid noted that the legislation widens loopholes that benefit mega-farms and fails to help farmers who need it most.
“This will continue to drive consolidation in the farm sector, allowing the biggest farms to keep growing and gobble up smaller and midsized operations that are so critical to the wellbeing of rural communities,” Farm Aid said in its analysis. “When it comes to the core challenges facing the farm economy, the 2018 Farm Bill fails spectacularly, and in some cases actively takes steps backward by giving even more taxpayer money to the wealthiest farm operations.”
The path to a Farm Bill that helps family farmers and farm workers and stimulates a vibrant, competitive agricultural industry begins with the 28th Amendment. By limiting the funding of political campaigns, we will restore our ability to elect a representative government responsive to the voices of constituents rather than the money of corporations and special interest groups. As we grow our network of American Promise Associations and citizen leaders across the United States, we strengthen our call for a representative government of, by and for We the People.