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Subsidy Narratives: How Foodies Unknowingly Bash Family Farmers

by: Brad Wilson

Thu Feb 23, 2012 at 18:03:03 PM PST

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The Food Movement has taken major stands against "cheap corn" and cheap prices for other farm commodities.  That's very supportive of farmers and a blessing to the entire farming community.

The Dominant Narrative

On the other hand, the food movement typically misunderstands the factor of farm subsidies, and as a result, bashes farmers.  By bashing I mean unfair blame.

A dominant force in US narratives about farm subsidies and the farm bill is surely that of the Environmental Working Group.  One standard feature of their narrative is that the top 10% of subsidy recipients receives 75% of the subsidies. That view is widely featured in the hundreds of mainstream media pieces about the 2008 farm bill that were collected by EWG. (

A second major part of EWG's narrative is shown in graphs of various categories (national, state, congressional district, county) of subsidy recipients.  These graphs show, for example, that the average annual subsidies of the top 10% of recipients is radically greater than the average annual subsidies of the bottom 80%.  For example, the current chart for national data shows "Average annual payments" of $30,751 for the top 10% of recipients, but an average of only $587 for the vast majority of recipients, the bottom 80%!  (®name=UnitedStatesFarmSubsidySummary) I don't question the math behind these raw data statistics.  I question it's valid interpretation.  

Brad Wilson :: Subsidy Narratives: How Foodies Unknowingly Bash Family Farmers
Narrative and Data at CFSC's Conference

Data and narrative of this type played a major role the narrative of food movement leaders featured in the Farm Bill plenary at the conference of the Community Food Security Coalition in Oakland California last November. The plenary was presented to about 1,000 progressive food activists.  The farm subsidy narrative from the EWG data, as described above, was a major theme by Dan Imhoff and was featured graphically in the video shown by Nicole Betancourt of Parent Earth.  It was also a theme for Congresswoman Chellie Pingree.

How the Narrative Bashes Farmers

During a time of open mic, I spoke out at the CFSC conference about how the plenary bashed farmers.  I raised the same issue in a (much smaller) farm bill group, a room full of major progressive food movement farm bill leaders.  I asked the group if they saw how the plenary bashed farmers.  Clearly, they did not.  This point was brought home to me in extended discussions (over an hour or more) with a few other activists.

I concluded that the source of the confusion, of our differing perspectives, was as follows. The EWG analysis of the raw farm subsidy data suggests very strongly that a relatively few farms get huge subsdies, and the vast majority of farms get relatively tiny subsidies.  That analysis then lends itself to a narrative in which food activists and leaders, for example Dan Imhoff, strongly oppose the huge subsidies to what are assumed to be large corporate farms, but supports subsidies, perhaps even significantly larger than tiny subsidies, to the bottom 80%, which are assumed to be family farms.

We see then, a farm subsidy narrative in the food movement that appears to support family farms, and that appears to oppose only giant corporate farms.  Essentially, by this standard there was clearly no farmer bashing at the CFSC conference plenary.  Surely, this was the view of the food movement leaders and activists who told me that they saw no (family) farmer bashing.  In contrast, I, in seeing the bashing, seemed to be advocating for large corporate farms.  Not surprisingly, I didn't seem to be very influential.

An Alternate, "Valid" Analysis of the Raw Subsidy Data and Narrative

Here's why this narrative and data analysis is invalid.  First, there is no definition of what a farm or a farmer, or family-sized farmer is. EWG tends to use the term "recipient."  Just above, I translated that into the term "farmer," which is surely a "natural" or "logical" assumption.  In fact, however, by any reasonable definition of farms and farmers, most subsidy recipients are clearly NOT farmers. This can be seen by farmers and other rural people who look at farm subsidy data for their home zip codes, where they know the people.  The much smaller recipients, the bottom 80%, are much smaller because they are not farming very much at all. Instead they're mostly people with tiny acreages, retired farmers, more or less broke farmers who  lost most of their land, and dead farmers, who may have previously retired, etc.

I've fixed this problem by doing what EWG has failed to do.  I've created a standard for a minimum-sized full-time farm.  My standard is a fairly simple one, based upon my region.  (Other similar standards could be created for other regions, and similar analyses could be conducted.)  My standard is a small corn and soybean farm that typically plants just 100 acres of corn and 100 acres of soybeans. That's clearly not a farm that would have generated enough money to make a living off of, for the years 1995-2010, the 16 years of the farm subsidy database.  

To calculate subsidy amounts, I took all corn subsidies (16 years) and divided it by all acres harvested (16 years) to get average subsidies per acre for the total 16 year period.  I did the same for soybeans.  I then multiplied the 1 year results by 100 acres for each crop.  By adding corn and soybean subsidies together, I then got 16 year results ($138,259).  I then looked up the ranking of a farmer getting that amount of subsidies in EWG's Farm Subsidy Database.

As it turns out, my 200 acre farm shows up at the 10.1% mark.  With 203 acres you make the top 10%.  We find then, that, (utilizing my bare minimum full-time farm standard,) unlike the food movements standard subsidy narrative, the valid data for full-time farms are essentially all found in the top 10%.  If you then look at higher percent rankings and the accompanying corn/soybean farm sizes that they represent, you see that the majority of farmers in the top 10% are family-sized farms or farms that are quite similar to family-sized farms.  

I conclude, therefore, as I did at the CFSC conference, that to bash the top 10% is to bash family farmers.

Ok, but who, then, makes up the bottom 80%?  Again utilizing my standard, we find that the vast majority of farms in the bottom 80% are tiny fractions of full-time family-sized farms.  For example, fully half of these EWG database recipients are only 3.3% or less  of the size of my very minimum, conservative standard for a 50%/50% corn/soybean farm.   The bottom 1/3 are only 1% of my standard.

Ironically, then, we find that EWG and the food movement leaders at the CFSC conference are really arguing that dead farmers, for example, (ie. those in the database for 1995 and 1996, but who quit farming in 1997 and died in 2000,) are farm subsidy victims relative to the full-time working family farmers in the top 10%.  In fact, however, these victims do not represent valid data to be used in computing which are big subsidies and which are small subsidies.  EWG has offered no conscious standard by which such a computation could be made.  

All of this then changes the analytical conclustions that the top 10% of "farmers" receive 75% of the subsidies that "farmers" receive.  That clearly is not true, by any rational standard of what a farmer is.

We see then, that the food movement, in developing a narrative based upon invalid data, has been bashing family farmers.

The Missing Context of Justice:  Parity: Fair Trade, Living Wage Farm Prices

A second major flaw in EWG's data analysis, and in the food movement's narrative, is that farm subsidy data is not put into the larger context of farm prices and farm income.  EWG (and most of the food movement and mainstream media and conservatives,) offers no analysis of the farm bill and it's history that includes this essential context.

I also provide data analysis that gives that context.  I show, for example, that for corn, since 1953, corn income was lowered by $1.3 trillion, while subsidies, which started in 1961, gave corn farmers back only about $200 billion.  That's based upon another standard, Parity, which was the farm bill price and price floor standard from 1942-1952, and which was very close to actual market prices for 1942-1952..  These reductions apply to all farm subsidy recipients.

In this case agribusiness corn, etc. buyers are the big, hidden beneficiaries, and their much bigger benefits are not included at all in farm subsidy data at EWG.



"Farm Bill Slides," by Brad Wilson, zspace, See here the slide showing how reductions in corn income of $1.3 trillion compensated by $200 billion in subsidies resulted in a net reduction for corn farmers of more than $1 trillion (all in 2009 dollars).


"Most EWG Subsidy 'Recipients' Are Too Tiny to Be 'Farmers,'" by Brad Wilson, zspace, 2/21/12

"Corn Farmers Have Long Subsidized You, Not the Other Way Around," by Brad Wilson, zspace, 2/23/12,

"Michael Pollan Rebuttal: Four Proofs Against Pollan's Corn "Subsidy" Argument," by Brad Wilson, zspace, 10/1/10,  This is a short summary blog.


"Michael Pollan Rebuttal 1 Debunking Pollan's "Corn Subsidy" Argument, FireweedFarm, YouTube, 10/1/10,

Michael Pollan Rebuttal 2: Debunking Pollan's "Corn Subsidy" Argument, FireweedFarm, YouTube, 10/1/10,


Farm Bill Primer,

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Good article (4.00 / 1)
Something else that people in the food movement either don't know or don't understand is that a lot of that cheap subsidised grain they claim is going to feed livestock is actually used to make something for human consumption first.

Soy goes primarily for food grade oil production as does canola (rapeseed).

A lot of Wheat and Barley (also eligable for subsidies) goes first to brewing.

The dried grains and oil cake are major components of animal feeds, especially for poultry. So a lot of that subsidized grain is feeding both people and the livestock that feed people. Essentially we get two meals out of many of those grains. If the manure from the meat production is handled right it could go to produce a third crop for human consumption. If it's handled even more efficiently it could go to produce electricity or used as straight methane and produce a fourth product.

Normal people scare me.... But not as much as I scare them.

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