We need an Integrated Farm Bill now

The NY Times recently held a “debate” titled The Farm Bill, Beyond the Farm. I put debate in quotes because there weren’t any pieces that directly opposed each other. Instead, each discussed different parts of the farm bill so we didn’t get to see any differences in opinion on the same issues. This group of eight activist-writers includes two lawyers, a social worker, an economist, and a lobbyist. One has a background in biology and ag economics. One grew up on a farm and might still farm in Oklahoma (I wasn’t able to find clear info) but works in media full time. One is a farmer and has experience with prior farm bills. Overall not a terrible group, but I would really have liked to see some people with expertise in agronomy and nutrition. What follows is just one view of some parts of the farm bill from a scientist. If you know of any others, please share the links in the comments!

Support for farmers should support a diverse food system

The farm bill does a great job of encouraging production of commodities. This was needed back when the farm bill was first started, but over time our food system has evolved. The commodities are used to produce cheap additives for cheap highly processed foods and cheap feed for cheap meat. While commodities have their place, I would like to see a bit more balance. Why aren’t we encouraging farmers to produce foods in a way that is more closely aligned with nutritional guidelines? Shouldn’t half of all crop supports go to fruit and vegetable farmers? What about more diversity in grains and legumes to help make that grains/protein side a bit more interesting?
And just what are these crop supports? Insurance is the most important, both in “regular” years and for disasters. Farming is a risky business. After buying seed, fertilizer, farming equipment, and pesticides – the whole crop can be ruined by a turn in the weather. If the weather is too good and there’s too much of a crop on the market, the price can drop. Either way, farmers lose. We need to ensure that farmers are able to pay for supplies and feed their families in addition to feeding America.
Should supports be structured the exact same way that they are now? Of course not. In his piece at the NY Times debate, Roger Johnson (president of the National Farmers Union) suggests tying direct payments to market fluctuation, so that payments decrease when prices are up. This is just one way to save tax dollars without harming farmers and without causing reductions in overall food production. Limiting total benefit per farm could ensure that supports go to farmers who really need itAnother idea is to go with whole-farm insurance instead of individual crop insurance, as suggested by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and a few others.
In previous Farm Bills, there have been multiple types of supports. It’s tempting to say that we should simplify and consolidate to just one program or suite of programs. The Environmental Working Group suggests that we move to crop insurance only for yield losses of greater than 30%. The problem with this idea is that we risk shutting out some farmers as we help others. Different crops have different risks, so it’d be hard to find a one-size-fits-all program. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but I’d hate to see more farmers get shut out and have even fewer ag products covered. We have to move carefully.
For an unbiased, plain-language summary Farm Bill ideas , see Farm Safety Net Proposals for the 2012 Farm Bill by the Congressional Research Service. Keith Good has a great list of other Farm Bill resources at FarmPolicy.com.

Support for families should be nutritious

Changes in SNAP benefits have been widely discussed for years. While I see the need for simplicity in the program and I’m not too excited about telling anyone what they can or can not eat – there is something to be said for limitation of what SNAP benefits can be used for. To me, the biggest issue is: what is the purpose of the program?
We know that the purpose of WIC is to provide nutrition pregnant women, infants, and children. The list of approved foods is very proscriptive, down to the amount of vitamins or whole grains per unit of food in some cases. Is the purpose of SNAP benefits also to provide nutrition? Why then, can’t we apply a WIC-style system to SNAP? Surely, the intent of SNAP is not to provide people with potato chips, soft drinks, and birthday cakes.
In November 2011, more than 46 million people were using SNAP benefits – almost 15% of the entire American population. We already know what a restricted food list looks like and how it affects the people using it. We already know that WIC is associated with healthy birth weights and improved nutritional status of children – as shown in the January 2012 USDA report Effects of the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC):  A Review of Recent Research. This is our successful case study – it’s time to roll out the restricted food list for SNAP as well.
Additionally, we need to revamp rules for school lunches, so that schools have flexibility to feed kids food they will actually eat but that is actually nutritious. Science-based WIC-like rules would be a good place to start for school lunches as well.

Environment must play a role

The lion’s share of current conservation programs aim to pull land out of production. They only work when payouts are more than can be earned by returning the land to farming. We need long term strategies for protecting habitat and improving on-farm sustainability. Current programs like EQIP and WHIP provide funds for just that. Instead of paying to keep land out of production, these programs pay farmers to improve their land, creating things like buffer strips to cleanse runoff and provide habitat. I’d like to see this idea expanded into improvement of farm methods themselves.
In his piece at the NY Times debate, David Murphy of Food Democracy Now! suggests that the goal should be all organic, with 75% of American farms certified organic by 2025. He also wants all school lunches to be organic by 2020. I get what he’s saying and they’re nice goals, but it’s 100% unrealistic for a number of reasons.
Organic just isn’t as productive as conventional ag. Yields are lower for almost every crop in almost every state, as shown by Steve Savage in Today’s Organic, Yesterday’s Yields. He writes: “to have organically produced the full output of 2008 US crops, it would have been necessary to harvest from an additional 121.7 million acres of cropland”. Frankly, I don’t know where we’d get the land, especially if we want to have a more diversified system where we’re including more crops with lower yields than commodity crops – speciality grains, legumes, fruits, and vegetables.
Still, the suite of organic methods does include many methods that could be used to use to improve the sustainability of farming. Some of these are already used in conventional ag to some degree. Others were previously used but have been largely replaced by “easier” methods that improve efficiency at the cost of sustainability. Still others are actually unique to organic. And, still others are unique to conventional ag. We need to tease out exactly which methods improve environmental sustainability – which ones improve on-farm and near-farm biodiversity, reduce runoff and emissions, reduce inputs. Then, we need to incentivize implementation of these methods on-farm.
Recently, researchers at Cambridge and Oxford used life cycle assessment (LCA) to calculate energy, greenhouse gases, and biodiversity impacts of three different farm systems. Their work suggested that an integrated system, with a combination of both organic and conventional methods, would result in the most sustainable farm. Instead of David’s goal of 75% organic by 2020, let’s aim for a slow but steady increase in the amount of sustainable methods used by 100% of farms.
Combining reasonable supports for farmers with good nutrition for Americans (and not just the ones using SNAP) and with sustainable methods for all farms is the best Farm Bill that I can think of. What’s your vision for the 2012 Farm Bill?
As I wrote this post, I wasn’t thinking about the definition of sustainable agriculture. But I just realized that the three sections of this post are the three legged stool of sustainable ag: economy, community, and environment. Those sus ag classes must have had a greater effect on me than I thought 🙂


  1. I’m a farming naif, in a partnership w/ three others, w/ just one acre mixed vegetables and 60 apple trees, so here goes:

    Still, the suite of organic methods does include many methods that could be used to use to improve the sustainability of farming. Some of these are already used in conventional ag to some degree.

    What’s “conventional agriculture”? Before the “organic” movement came along, was there such a thing as “conventional ag,” or has the whole conversation become so polluted with the dichotomous thinking imposed on it by the “organic” side (which represents something like 0.7% of crop yield) that we cannot escape it?
    We till up four-foot strips and seed alternating strips in cover crops of legumes and rye throughout the season; then the following year we rotate the strips so that what was cover crop one year is vegetable crop the following year.
    We also have a few hobby cows here (milking Devons, Shorthorns), a horse, a few pigs, chickens and turkeys, so we have a lot of “manure” for a small farm. I pile it in discrete piles with a bucketloader and compost it throughout the winter and spring months then either spread it on the hay fields or use it on select field crops. We also have several vegetable compost piles.
    For pest control we use row covers on some crops, malathion and Sevin on others, but most crops don’t need spraying. Next year I’d like to plant Bt sweet corn, if it’s something we can afford and can get in small quantities. The orchard gets regular sprays of Captan, Imidan, etc. I hand-thin the fruit, and we keep the orchard mowed and spotless. This is called IPM (Integrated Pest Management).
    So we can’t be considered “organic” because we are not certified (and I wouldn’t like being associated with those homeopaths and herbal healers anyhow), but we can hardly be considered “conventional” as we have never had to buy inputs (not that we believe there’s anything wrong with that).

    We need to tease out exactly which methods improve environmental sustainability – which ones improve on-farm and near-farm biodiversity, reduce runoff and emissions, reduce inputs. Then, we need to incentivize implementation of these methods on-farm.

    Therefore, it might be helpful to dump the blanket terms “organic” and “conventional” altogether for those methods and just refer to them by name: composting, cover-cropping, mulching, no-till, genetically engineered plants, pesticides, mechanical means, etc.

  2. Curious Anastasia, you say our proposal (EWG) may not work because it could leave out farmers yet you offer no data nor in depth analysis to back up this assertion. You say:
    “The problem with this idea is that we risk shutting out some farmers as we help others. Different crops have different risks, so it’d be hard to find a one-size-fits-all program. I’m not saying it’s not possible, but I’d hate to see more farmers get shut out and have even fewer ag products covered. We have to move carefully.”
    Here you ignore the current system where since 1995 just 4% of US farmers — the largest growers of commodity crops — took in a staggering 74% of federal farm support.
    62% of US farmers currently receive no direct federal support. Right now just five crops, corn cotton rice wheat and soybeans receive 90% of federal support.
    Most farmers are “shut out” now, and EWG’s proposal would be light years ahead in attempting to give all US farmers a measure of support only when they need it (without a huge taxpayer burden and perverse incentives to engage in risky planting practices) and yet you ignore that data straight from USDA — why?

  3. Hi Don,
    Are you sure about the 4% figure? Because on the Environmental Working Group site (and here) it states that the number is 10%. Which figure is correct?
    Also, as posted on the EWG site, 38% of farmers receive subsidy payments, which is probably a better number to consider if we’re talking about farmers being ‘shut out’ or not.
    I’m happy to see you here to discuss details of the farm bill, I just hope we can agree on what the facts are before guns start blazing over who is ignoring what data or is or is not providing an in-depth analysis.

  4. Oye Vay.
    Karl Haro von Mogel — Yes I’m sure. And actually that 4% # is a tad high. Here’s how it breaks down — of farms that are SUBSIDIZED, the top 10% take in 74% of the payments. When you look at all farms in the US, SUBSIDIZED or NOT, then the percentage that receives the most subsidies gets even smaller – the 4%.
    Guns start blazing when folks mispresent EWG’s data, analysis and advocacy in the public square. I didn’t ask for someone to get it wrong when they characterize our position, but I most certainly will do my best to correct it.
    But instead of chastising me for an easy defense of EWG’s position, I’d like to hear you respond to the actual questions I posed. Any takers? Do you think the current system that benefits a narrow niche of profitable large scale farms and leaves little for others is equitable and defensible? One that leaves out fruit and vegetable growers (conventional AND organic) Do you have better plan then EWG’s that aims to make payments more equitable while keeping the taxpayer and environment in mind?

  5. Mary M – yeah, Brad and i have gone over this before and while I respect what he’s trying to say, he’s missing the point in defense of smaller operations. The actual subsidy payments to the big farms enables them to amass capitol and outbid the smaller guys for land thus accelerating consolidation in rural America. But don’t listen to me on this score, listen to the Nebraska based Center for Rural Affairs.
    And Brad comes from a world where he grows some of the five favored commodity crops and is not a fruit or vegetable grower who are totally exiled from the subsidy program no matter their size.

  6. Thanks for pointing out the distinction between the numbers, my response was based on a quick reading of sources. The reason why I questioned the numbers is because the EWG has not been very good with the numbers when it comes to the “dirty dozen” reports – but that is a debate for another day.
    You seem quite worked up over Anastasia’s statement, and you are faulting me for not defending it. I’m leaving that for her to defend because it is after all her statement. She will respond when she has the time.

    Do you have better plan then EWG’s that aims to make payments more equitable while keeping the taxpayer and environment in mind?

    A quick point – just because someone does not themselves have a ‘better plan’ does not mean that any plan offered up should be accepted as a default. That’s just the scientist and logician in me speaking, of course, I’m no politician or lobbyist.
    Perhaps you could provide some links to help others better understand your position?

  7. Mary, this is a good find. I don’t follow farm subsidy arguments very closely, and as with all political issues, people who are partisans will tend to frame things in a manner that supports their argument, and tend to ignore details that don’t. Sometimes just the way you present the numbers can be misleading. (Such as giving percentages and not actual amounts.) It appears from Brad’s analysis, that the EWG is being misleading by presenting it in a way that implies that subsidies are just a big boondoggle for giving big rich farmers money. Instead, Brad indicates that if you have a 200-acre corn farm, you fall into this category. And the average payment is not some huge exorbitant amount. Maybe what would be really helpful is a histogram of the categories and amounts, instead of these bare percentages.

  8. DonEWG,
    I second Karl’s request for a link to a succinct statement/outline of EWG’s plan. The subsidies link on the EWG site has a lot of “look how bad politicians and lobbyists are” posts, but, in my quick look, I didn’t see the plan.
    And what about the 38% number Karl linked to on EWG? Is that all flavors of government payouts or a specific type like crop insurance?

  9. Good points, the methods used in “organic” and “conventional” farming overlap so much that it’s more like a bell curve of sustainability than two discrete categories. It is much more useful to consider the sustainability of each method on its own. I see the words as a sort of shorthand, with organic meaning a farm system that uses a collection of methods chosen with strong consideration for environmental impact, and with conventional meaning a farm system that uses a collection of methods chosen with strong consideration for efficiency. Not that organic farmers don’t consider efficiency or that conventional farmers don’t consider environmental impact, but from what I’ve seen of the two systems, that’s just not their main focus.
    Your farm sounds pretty awesome 😀

  10. Hi Don. In science there’s not much certainty, and I think we have little certainty that removing all supports besides insurance for losses >30% will be the best possible solution. I didn’t say that it was a horrible idea, just that other possibilities need to be considered. I did say that serious change was needed, specifically to facilitate a switch from supporting a few commodities to supporting a diverse food system. While I didn’t cite the numbers, I specifically said that the current system is not producing the food we need. I feel that you’ve picked out a few sentences without reading the rest of the section.
    Can you not think of any other options, any other programs that might help move us towards a food system with more, smaller, regional farms producing more diverse crops (and animals)? When I wrote those sentences that you picked out, I was thinking about possibilities for small grants and/or loans to help farmers get started, to buy land or equipment. I was thinking about seed funds to help farmers diversify, to offset losses while a tree crop is getting established, perhaps. The grants and loans provided under conservation programs, to my knowledge, don’t cover things like that.
    Apologies for the delay in response. While it is a career goal of mine to find a position where I can write reports and policy documents about ag, at this time, writing about ag is on a volunteer basis only, and I must attend to my day job.

  11. I would love to see a histogram of all the data. I’d find the data and make one, but alas have limited time for this stuff 🙁 There doesn’t seem to be many reports of the full data, strangely enough. Everyone seems to format their summary in a way that supports their own conclusions.

  12. It sounds like this farm belongs in a new category – maybe something called “UNconventional Ag” – I can’t take credit for that phrase, I know someone else came up with it.
    The dichotomy between organic and conventional is a forced one, indeed.

  13. .
    From Brad’s article, his first thought on the EWG analyses:

    I don’t question the math behind these raw data statistics. I question it’s valid interpretation.

    Having just perused the EWG site in question, I laughed when I read this and thought “You should be questioning both!”. The summary stats reported on the EWG site read like a DO NOT DO list one would give in an intro stats class. Brad was referring to a prominently displayed bar chart showing the average payment for the top 10% vs the bottom 80% of recipients. This is immediately suspicious as economic data is almost always highly skewed, rendering stats like the “average” useless. The median would be more appropriate with such data. I didn’t see a way to obtain the data directly to test the theory, but they do offer up the “Top Commodity Recipients 1995-2010”, a list of the 20 largest recipients. This data is highly skewed, and as expected, the average for this group is 4.3 million per year, while the median value is 1.2 million, a nearly 4 fold difference. As this is probably representative of the whole data set, the more than 50 fold difference indicated in the 10% vs 80% bar chart ($30,751 vs $587) is most certainly greatly exaggerated.
    There’s also the curious question of why 10% vs 80%? Why would someone pick those numbers and why was the intermediate 10% between 80 and 90 left out? Could it be that this data would either push down the mean of the high group or, alternatively, push the mean of the bottom group too high? Regardless of the motivation, this type of practice is common when someone is being deceptive with data and calls into question the intent of EWG.
    Brad’s analysis of the data is a more accurate view, IMO. He correctly attempts to adjust for “farm” size and calls into question the use of recipients who apparently retired or died during the 16 year period. Annual variability in payments is quite apparent in the data given by EWG. For example, among EWG’s top 20 above, the biggest recipients show no payments during the last 4 years. This decreasing payment trend is also evident in the individual commodity program data presented by EWG. Overall, subsidy levels generally decline from highs in the late 90’s to early 2000’s. Two notable programs with increasing trends are those aimed at environmental improvement.
    I have no doubt that abuses and bias exist in subsidy programs, but I would be reluctant to use EWG analyses as a basis for arguing the point. If the evidence is there, then just show it. There’s no need to torque the data to make their case. I can see why Mary and Karl are suspicious of their reports.

  14. Anastasia — you said:
    “In science there’s not much certainty”
    Well with policy we can make very detailed projections about government support for agriculture. But to your question about diversity there are several things we can do, one of them being expanding school feeding programs to include specialty crops — fruits and vegetables — so that the increased demand increases the need for more diverse crops. Dropping the lavish support we give to the commodity sector except to ensure that smaller operations can stay on the land would also decrease the incentives for our current mono culture system. Making sure the growers of all crops can participate in conservation programs also helps put them on a level playing field.

  15. Wowsa.
    OK, I thought maybe folks here might be able to be objective about our work, though I now realize our stands for making sure that consumers have full knowledge whats in and on their foods — from GMOs to pesticides — has prejudiced this crowd. so as my final response here — and to the point that our data (direct from USDA) somehow is skewed, which is just plain wrong, here’s how USDA itself talks about the distribution of payments:
    “Commercial family farms are large-scale farms with gross annual sales of $250,000 or more. Commercial farms represent one-fourth of all government-payment farms and received 62 cents of the government payment dollar—39 cents from commodity programs, 14 cents from other programs, and 9 cents from conservation programs.”
    “The largest 12.4 percent of farms in terms of gross receipts received 62.2 percent of all government payments in 2009.”

  16. People who cast aspersions on US agriculture should consider the system in the European Union. Annual payments to farmers are roughly equal to 60 percent of annual tax revenues by the EU. The EWG should protest against *that* if they’re really against subsidies.

  17. While I’m willing to question the EWG’s tactics (especially given their crappy “Dirty Dozen” campaign), the site you source is eerily devoid of any human being’s name–no board of directors, nothing. “They” claim to be created by “The Center for Consumer Protection,” but even that site has no one behind the wheel.

  18. Yeah, Wowsa! I hate to break it to you, but yes Virginia, your data is skewed. Skewed is a statistical term referring to the symmetry of the frequency distribution of the data, not a personal insult. I would hope the people at EWG would have some concept of this, but I may be mistaken in that. I was being objective. I was looking at the data, not numerous sensationalist undertones rampant on the site. Those could take an entire post in and of themselves. The data speak for themselves. I would suggest you try taking a look around at how economic data are reported, i.e. median income, median tax rate, median cost of a home, etc, etc. Averaged data is badly biased (another statistical term, not a personal affront) in this type of data.
    I wasn’t even arguing against EWG’s claims, just stating they seem to be misrepresenting the data. Is it status quo for the EWG to just take their toys and go home whenever someone questions their statements? That is unfortunate as you might find more common ground here than you think exists, if you had attempted a discussion.
    I am reminded of Stewart Brand’s arguments on how unyielding and dogmatic the environmentalist movements have become.

  19. OK, I thought maybe folks here might be able to be objective about our work

    They were. You flounced because of it. Congratulations. Peer review failure.

  20. I think MikeB is moving closer to what we can really call “Sustainable Ag”. And Mike, that means what you are doing is really great.

  21. Its hard to find common ground with anonymous posters who have yet to dispute any of the facts I’ve laid out nor offer any original ideas aside from quoting a food industry front group’s web site. I’m a big proponent of engaging in online discussions but tolerating flat out derision without any substance by people who can’t be transparent about their identities is not a long term project for me.
    As I posted, our data and analysis closely mirrors USDA’s own. And their goal is to promote the current system which we have been very clear about our desire to reform. CBO has also come the the same conclusion about the concentration of subsidy dollars in the hands of a very few large farm businesses.

  22. Thanks.
    But I think “sustainability” is one of those myths we tell ourselves, which is material for a separate discussion….

  23. Fine, you don’t like anonymity and I’ll ignore the 10-80 and 38% questions I raised and try to go back to a discussion of policy. I asked below what the EWG’s plan was. How do they/you propose to fix things? Is it the support EWG shows for the “Local Farms, Food, and Jobs act” or is there something more comprehensive we can read?

  24. Anonymous posters?
    I suppose if giving your name and job title in your description is considered anonymity.
    Pdiff is a real life statistician, he knows of what he speaks.
    You’ve yet to say anything about who you actually are other than alluding to the fact that you speak for the EGW. How well versed in statistics are you? (I’ll go out on a limb and guess rather less well than “a statistician in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at the University of Idaho”)

  25. Also its not the data Pdiff is disputing, it is the use thereof.
    The data may well still support your points if you utilize it in a meaningful manner, it may not, but statisticians get bristly when encountering data used badly.

  26. USDA and CBO use the data the same way, yet I get the feeling that because its EWG, you offer a knee jerk reaction.

  27. Hell no, I was a horrible student. But I have worked policy and politics on several farm bills and no one disputes at a government level — USDA or in Congress — that the data shows that the payments are highly concentrated. From Republican Chuck Grassley to Democrat Ron Kind to President Obama’s own budget documents.

  28. I never said we shouldn’t drop or at least dramatically cut subsidies for the commodity sector. I feel like are generally in agreement about this. We are just coming at the subject from different angles – me from science and you from policy. Yet, your language feels sort of combative to me, as if you think I’m disagreeing with you. To be blunt, it’s sort of confusing and I’m not sure how to take it.

  29. Don, if you click on pdiff’s name, it will take you to his profile here on Biofortified with his name, occupation, and workplace. That’s about as un-anonymous as you can get.
    I don’t have as much statistics training as he, but I agree that some of the methods of data analysis used by EWG put up red flags for me. As with pdiff, it’s not that I disagree with the goals of EWG, but I believe that the best way to accomplish a goal is to present the data in as accurate a way as possible and let it speak for itself. Yet, strange decisions are made, such as the 10% and 80% thing. Perhaps this is the difference between approaching the information from a scientific vs a policy way? I don’t know enough policy people to say for sure, although from my experience at NIH, policy documents are created with as much scientific rigor as a scientific document. Anyway, I hope you understand that our concern isn’t necessarily with the policy statements being made, but on the data analysis that they are based on.

  30. The data are being presented as the EGW’s, if the USDA and CBO use the data in the same way then I’m sure Pdiff would criticise their use of it – however if (and this may or may not be the case, I’m speculating here) this is the first time Pdiff is seeing the data presented like this, and its the EWG doing the presenting, then I’m sure you’d agree it’d be fair of him to criticize the EWG.
    Could you also point to where it is the USDA and CBO presenet the data in the same way as the EWG – one would think that to best reflect the reality of the situation you’d want to look at it on a per/unit area or unit production rather than on a per producer basis (asides from looking at medians as opposed to means) – because if Bobs farm is 20x bigger than Bills farm one might expect, if they both plant entirely commodity crops, that Bob makes (in a very simplistic world) 20x the subsidy that Bill makes (Which would seem unfair if you didn’t know the farm size difference) and potentially more than this given economies of scale and efficiency associated with getting bigger (perhaps Bob also gets 10% more yield than Bill, such that if subsidies are to some extent awarded on production he’ll make >20x Bill’s subsidy amount) (this model would indeed show that payments are concentrated to big farms, but it may demonstrate that this ain’t as unfair as it is being made out to be – it may be in reality, but given the figures provided (and my lack of time to do any background work on this) I don’t believe you can draw that conclusion)
    Until the data is framed like this its hard to make a good call – this may not be the fault of the EWG, the available data might not be good enough to make any sort of call in this arena, however given the history of the EWG in making spectacularly bad calls on other data (pesticide residue data) its not exactly hard to see why an extra dose of scorn might be brought when statistics are abused again – even if everyone else is doing it.

  31. I apologise – I missed your earlier link. This plays back however to my points above (particularly the USDA link)
    Ignore the % of payment that goes to each type of farm (as this is misleading, as explained ad nauseum) and skip directly to about half way down the document where there is a line graph in the section
    “Government Payments by Farm Sales Class, 2000-09”
    The message below the graph reads:-

    Among farms receiving government payments over the 2000-09 period:
    Low-sales farms received, on average, $16 per acre.
    Medium- and high-sales farms experienced larger fluctuations in government payments per acre, reflecting more exposure to fluctuations in commodity prices.
    Since higher levels of productivity generate larger yields, high-sales farms received, on average, $23 per acre, or almost $6 more in government payments per acre than medium-sales farms.

    So over the 9 year period a large farm, on average, gets 37% more per acre than a small farm, although at the end of the period in question parity is reached due to low commodity pricing (suggesting, although not proving, that the productivity difference between low and high sales farms is at play)
    Subsequent graphing also shows that while a large farm may pull in more per acre than a smaller farm, the smaller farm actually relies for more of their actual income (in terms of a percentage) than the large farm does (high sales farms have ~5% of their income coming from subsidies, whereas small farms have ~25%, with medium farms intermediate, although trending towards the high farm values rather than low – again suggesting that productivity is higher the bigger you get (which may well be an arguement against subsidising large operations at the same rate as small)
    It appears however that while the EWG (which for some reason I’ve taken to calling the EGW, which would be explicable by my Europeanness if I was the right kind of European…(I aint)) is reporting things in the same way, they’re not interpreting things quite right (to be fair neither is the USDA in the 2nd linked document which doesn’t look very deeply at $/Ac or acreage in general)

  32. Well, I seem to have caused a bit of an unintended distraction with the EWG hubba-balloo. I am, however, still looking for more distinct statements on policy. In the doc Anastasia linked to above: Farm Safety Net Proposals for the 2012 Farm Bill, the EWG proposal is described as a more back to basics model, simply providing support for unforeseen yield losses beyond 30%. Anastasia is saying this could hurt someone like MikeB because yield losses across commodities are not equitable. I tried, unsuccessfully, to elicit from DonEWG a pointer to more specifics on this proposal (particularly of interest, where the 30% mark comes from. The reference in the doc is not useful on the current proposal itself).
    So, … Questions:
    Would a farm revenue based model be better than the commodity yield loss model? (likely more expensive for taxpayers).
    How does this solve the problem large (assumed corporate) farms receiving the larger portion of payments?

  33. Looking into this a little more how imbalanced is it really?
    Breaks down % of farms and % of production values
    if we split into 2 categories based around the $250k p/a divide we see that small farms account for a whopping 84% of all farms (by number) with 16% making less than $250k
    If you look at productivity (still cant find area, so productivity will have to do) the split is as follows
    small farms (less than $250kp/a) account for 13.8% of productivity
    large farms (greater than $250kp/a) account for 86.2% of productivity
    Therefore, on subsidies based on production it would be absolutely expected that 16% of the farms take somewhere in the region of 86.2% of the subsidies.
    Numbers which are right where the figures quoted above are.
    So the arguement I guess is – do we subsidize based on production, or do we subsidize based on some other criterion? If so what? Expanding to more crops, or different crops, won’t solve the problem. Paying only small producers likely smacks of some form of illegallity regarding competitiveness.
    (average farm sizes and farm number data suggest there are about 69% of the acres in small farm production as there are in large farm production – so if all ag productivity was equally subsidized you would still expect the 16% to walk away with >50% of the subsidies)

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