Stirring up some shit: New report on federal funding for factory farms’ waste and other programs

Agriculture policy in this country has been geared for 30-odd years toward one goal: the production of ever-cheaper food. But as is by now painfully obvious, cheap food has foisted its real costs onto the environment, public health, workers and animals. Taxpayers bear that burden indirectly in the form of enormous health-care and food-safety bills, but what's particularly nauseating is how much we pay directly, through government programs that spend millions to prop up the largest, most offensive food-related businesses.

Which is why a new report out yesterday, titled "Industrial Livestock at the Taxpayer Trough: How Large Hog and Dairy Operations are Subsidized by the Environmental Quality Incentives Program" (full PDF of report | press release) and written by the Ethicurean's own Elanor Starmer for the Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment, makes for particularly sickening reading.

In the name of "conservation," taxpayers are paying millions to store and transport vast oceans worth of antibiotic-laced manure from Confined Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs. And despite that fact, as Elanor has previously written, $4.1 billion in taxpayer dollars has been spent over the years to deal with leaking manure storage facilities, with more billions going to other waste-related problems.

The bottom line is that EQIP is being used to subsidize the growth of the most polluting model of livestock production (read this vivid eyewitness piece by Grist's Tom Philpott) rather than rewarding the kinds of farms that offer environmental benefits to the community. And unlike commodity subsidies, these payments are not publicly accessible.

This shit has got to stop.

EQIP didn't start out as a piggybank for industrial agriculture. It was established in the 1996 Farm Bill as a cost-share program to help family farmers incorporate more conservation practices into their farming operations. But the 2002 Farm Bill opened up the EQIP spigot to even the largest factory farms, allowing them to expand their operations to the tune of $450,000 from EQIP over five years, up from the $50,000 per farm the 1996 bill had offered.

Not surprisingly, CAFOs quickly muscled out the little guys away from the trough. But just how much they were gorging on to fund things like massive manure lagoons or the wonderfully named "manure transfer" payments (federal funding to move manure off a farm when the operation produces too much to apply to available cropland) was mostly hidden. That's because the 2002 Farm Bill also contained a nice little bit that prohibited the USDA from releasing specific information about the "conservation" contracts — such as how participants in these taxpayer-funded programs were using their payments — presumably for homeland security reasons.

Well, I know Elanor, and she's a tenacious New Englander who doesn't take no for an answer, certainly not when it comes to CAFOs (on which she wrote her master's thesis). She found the money. Well, some of it, anyway. "As it turns out, the Ag Resource Management Survey that the USDA's Economic Research Service does every few years does have some data, and that's what I used," says Elanor. "It's by no means complete, but at least it's a start."

From her report, here are some choice facts about how EQIP is using our tax dollars:

  • A Becker County, MN, producer received $285,500 to build a manure lagoon nearly 1 million cubic feet in size (Note: that's more than 11 Olympic-size swimming pools, if I did my math correctly)
  • In Wabasha County, MN, three producers received a combined $619,000 to build manure storage ponds and tanks totaling 1.1 million cubic feet in size.
  • The federal government has approved a total of nearly $5 million in funding for manure transfer in Missouri since 2003.

Here's the big picture:

…although dairies housing over 500 cows make up only 3.9% of all dairy operations nationally, they receive an estimated 54% of all EQIP contracts to the dairy sector. Mid-sized dairies of 100-199 cows, which account for 13% of all dairies nationally, receive only 7% of dairy contracts. Similarly, hog operations of over 2,000 head make up only 10.7% of all hog operations nationally but receive an estimated 37% of all EQIP contracts to the hog sector. Mid-sized hog farms with 500-999 head represent roughly 15% of all operations, but receive only 5.4% of EQIP hog contracts.

The 2008 Farm Bill decreased the amount of EQIP funding any operation can receive from $450,000 to $300,000 over the life of the Farm Bill, but allowed the lower cap to be waived in "special environmental circumstances." We can bet that CAFOs will try to work that loophole. The Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment, the coalition of Midwestern groups that commissioned Elanor's report, is urging Congress and President-Elect Obama to reform the program with five specific suggestions detailed in the press release. Soon, we taxpayers will get a chance to add our voices to the EQIP reform chorus: the USDA is expected to open a public comment for the program any day now. Elanor will keep us posted on how we can put a stop to this crap.

6 Responsesto “Stirring up some shit: New report on federal funding for factory farms’ waste and other programs”

  1. All Mi T says:

    I am tired of these folks on Capitol hill giving my loot away with  <a href='http://rawdawgb.blogspot.com/2008/12/no-strings-attached.html'>No strings attached.</a>

  2. Colleen says:

    Agreed.  I guess we know why it's called "pork barrel" spending.  Thankfully, there seems to be a movement toward people better understanding how government spending is directly affecting them.  More and more are seeing how spending programs like the ones you talked about are actually making us and the earth sicker.   

  3. Jackie says:

    I am one farmer that has received EQIP money and used it for the intended purposes:  We took 42 acres out of conventional corn/soybean land and turned it into an organic pasture for our grassfed beef herd.  EQIP paid 60% of the costs of fence, water lines, and seeding.  There is no way we could have afforded to do this without the help.  We are now transitioning another 46 acres that border the same water line/fences.  That's EQIP at its best.  When we voice our complaints, please differentiate between the CAFO's and small family farmers like me.   I'd hate to see the program cut across the board.

  4. Elanor says:

    Jackie, thanks so much for raising that point. You'll be glad to know that the report clearly differentiates between the two. In fact, one of the main findings of the report is that because CAFOs are snatching an unfair share of funds, they're reducing the funding available to the program's original intended recipients -- small and mid-sized family farms. The USDA's own research has found that these farms get more work done per EQIP dollar than industrial operations do, so it's both more fair and more cost-effective to target them for funding. The recommendations we lay out are ones that we feel will keep the program strong and effective and help family farmers carry out important conservation measures on their land.

  5. Indeed! Thanks for putting this all out here for us to read, your blog is a gem, even though it's got lots of news that's hard to swallow *gulp*

  6. I'm a nutritionist/exercise physiologist (among other random things) with celiac "disease." This combination makes for rather intense food scrutiny behavior. I've been quietly following your blog for quite some time now and love your passion, direction, and sense of humor. (Sometimes all you can do is laugh.) I belong to a local CSA and I know how hard these farmers work. I'm also aware of how important they are to my overall health (I'll spare you the biochemical details) and I find it frustrating that people aren't connecting what's going on in Washington to the increased rate of chronic disease and rising health care costs. If you need a Colorado connection, I'm ready, willing, and able to jump on your "stirring up the shit" bandwagon.  Melissa