Lawmaker has received $370,000 from farm program he helped draft

Donnelle Eller
The Register

Sen. Chuck Grassley and six other congressional leaders have benefited from farm policies they've helped draft, netting themselves and about two dozen other legislators $15 million in federal assistance over two decades, a Washington, D.C., environmental group says.

Sen. Chuck Grassley thanks the crowd Saturday, Aug. 27, 2016, during the second annual Roast and Ride at the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines.

Grassley and six U.S. House and Senate leaders sit on agriculture committees that  draft farm bill policies every five years, the Environmental Working Group said.

Subsidies to legislators and their families ranged from $5.3 million to California's Rep. Doug LaMalfa, a Republican, to $2,500 to Rep. Jim Costa, a California Democrat, from 1995 to 2016.

Grassley received $367,763 in disaster, corn, soybean and oat commodity subsidies over 21 years, according to the group, which has compiled the information in an online database.

"Some of the folks making important decisions about the shape of farm subsidies benefit directly from those decisions," said Craig Cox, who leads the Environmental Working Group's agriculture and natural resources efforts.

"It's important to understand that decisions can be colored by whether you're affected or not affected, and this is particularly true in agriculture policy," Cox said.

Grassley's office said Friday that the Iowa Republican "receives no special treatment compared to any other farmer." 

Grassley has "been the leading advocate for responsible and limited government spending" on farm subsidies, his office said, with the 2014 farm bill starting subsidy reforms by removing direct payments for most major row crops.

On Tuesday, Grassley said he would continue fighting for limits on the size of operations that can get farm subsidies.

He pointed to a federal report that said half of commodity program payments in 1991 went to farms with households incomes of more than $60,717, which was adjusted for inflation.

But in 2015, half went to households with incomes over $146,126.

"The major takeaway is that more subsidies continue to go to bigger, wealthier farmers, and that's a direct result of consolidation in rural America," Grassley told reporters in a conference call.

"As farms get bigger, rural towns get smaller," Grassley told reporters.

"I strongly believe that at some point, farms are big enough, and they shouldn't continue to get unlimited federal dollars," he said, adding that he would work to close loopholes that enable non-family farmers to get federal support.

The 2014 farm bill caps subsidies and conservation payments to farmers with an adjusted gross income of $900,000 or less.

The Environmental Working Group's analysis shows that the "top 10 percent of subsidy recipients collected 77 percent of farm subsidies" over the 21 years examined, "even though annual farm household income for large commercial farms tops $1.1 million."

"There are still huge opportunities for these payments to go to very prosperous operations that are competing for land and resources with smaller family farms," said Cox, who is based in Ames.

"We have to ask ourselves if we're actually helping the family farmers who really need the help," he said.

Farm advocates say corporations or partnerships that seem like large farming operations actually support multiple families.

Operators may share equipment or purchase seed and other crop inputs together to lower costs and better adjust to falling commodity prices.

Corn prices, for example, have fallen nearly 60 percent from a 2012 high. Farm income in Iowa and the U.S. has tumbled along with crop prices.

Although changing, farm subsidies have been around since the 1930s to provide farmers with a safety net to deal with adverse weather or market swings that can wipe out operations and destabilize the country's food supplies.

Cox said the country needs to examine how best to use limited tax dollars in the next farm bill.

9/18/12 4:53:03 PM --  Lawrence County, IL, U.S.A  -- Drought --  One of farmer Dennis Green's cornfields in Lawrence County, IL.  This cornfield was declared a total loss by crop insurance adjusters.  Green, 59, grows corn and soybeans on his 800 acre farm.    Another of his cornfields had a decreased yield of 56 bushels per acre, down from about 150 bushels per acre.  Corn growers, like Green, have been hard hit by the drought of 2012.  Fortunately, he had crop insurance. Photo by Eileen Blass, USA TODAY staff  ORG XMIT: EB 42374  9/17/2012 [Via MerlinFTP Drop]

Environmental Working Group says farmers are getting paid twice to protect revenue — once through programs that protect corn, soybeans and other crop revenue and again through crop insurance.

The federal government covers about 60 percent of crop insurance's cost.

"Given how much money we're spending on these programs, we need to ask if we need" all of them, Cox said.

Looking only at 2014 and 2015, Iowa received about $3.1 billion in commodity and crop insurance subsidies, the largest amount nationally, the Environmental Working Group said.

Iowa ranks second only to California when it comes to the value of its agricultural production.

Iowa leads the nation in corn, eggs and pork production, and ranks second in soybean production and seventh for beef.

Cox applauded Grassley's work to limit payments going to large farms.

But he said more work needs to be done to shift farm support to conservation practices that help improve water quality.

Cox said: If the country is spending money on commodity and crop insurance subsidies "that aren't needed to help farmers get through a low-price scenario, that's money we desperately need to clean up Iowa's water."