By Chris Hinyub
Special to the Surf City Voice
New data compiled by the Environmental Working Group shows that the majority of federal subsidy dollars granted to California farmers are being collected by the state’s largest agribusinesses. The new figures highlight the skewed priorities and rampant waste inherent in the USDA’s current subsidy program. In their own analysis of the numbers, the EWG calls for a more “intelligent and equitable strategy” to funding all areas of California’s diverse agricultural system.
Last year the top one percent of farm subsidy recipients in the state garnered a staggering $57 million in support, according to the latest update of the EWG Farm Subsidies database. That was an average of $453,000 per recipient. The lion’s share of this money went to cotton and rice growers. Compare this with the bottom 80 percent which received less than $1,400 a year on average.
California farmers who don’t grow cotton, rice, corn, livestock or wheat, receive little to no direct subsidy payments. Yet, almost half of California’s $36 billion a year farm revenue is generated outside the commodity crop market in the growing of fruits, vegetables and nuts – so called “specialty crops”. By comparison, rice and cotton accounted for less than three percent of market value of the state’s total agricultural output for 2008, the last year such statistics were available.
Nationally, 44 percent of federal crop subsidies went to cotton and rice farmers in 2009. Kari Hamerschlag, Senior Analyst at EWG, points out that “much of these subsidies came from programs that paid based on past production, whether or not cotton was still being grown.”
In fact, cotton acreage throughout the state has decreased dramatically since 2009 subsidy apportionment figures were cast. This means that unsustainable California agribusinesses are receiving a federal stipend while creating little (if any) revenue for the state.
In his analysis of the latest agricultural subsidy data, Hamerschlag writes, “The EWG Farm Subsidies database starkly reveals the imbalance, waste and skewed priorities of federal farm programs in California. It is a system that disproportionately benefits relatively few big growers of thirsty, chemical-dependent crops while failing to address the environmental challenges facing California agriculture.”
Specialty crop producers also rely on government support but through less-direct means. Some get their start through grants promoting water conservation, good land stewardship and overall farm sustainability. Unfortunately, the disparity between commodity subsidy payments and agricultural conservation program funding is disproportionately impacting California.
“Nationally, EWG’s analysis found that the $13 billion paid out in 2009 in federal commodity subsidy payments and crop insurance premiums outpaced funding for agricultural conservation programs by more than 3-to-1,” writes Hamerschlag. “In California, the disparity was even greater: Subsidies outpaced conservation funding for agriculture by a more than 5-to-1 margin.”
California has the nation’s largest agricultural economy by far, but is surprisingly more resilient than other states to the effects of the ongoing “subsidy gap”, possibly owing to its rich diversity of agricultural goods.