EWG Web Site

A few years ago an organization called the "Environmental Working Group" (EWG) initiated a new Web site (www.ewg.org) that quickly became the hot topic of discussion in coffee shops, grain elevators and on farms throughout the Midwest. The site is a database of all farm program payments paid to listed entities (individuals, partnerships, corporations, etc.), and has recently been updated to include all payments for the past nine years (1995 - 2004).

The EWG Web site database allows a person to do a search of farm program payments nationally, by state, by county, by zip code or individually. The website gives either an annual or composite breakdown of payments for commodity programs, disaster assistance and conservation programs. The EWG website would lead us to believe that many farmers are reaping huge windfalls from government programs.

Before everyone gets all worked up about the EWG website and think that most farmers are making a huge windfall, here are a few things to think about:

1) Do we really need a breakdown of farm program payments by Congressional District? The summary on the EWG web site shows that 70% of the farm program payments go to 47 Congressional districts (about 10%). In Minnesota, EWG shows that in 2004, about 92% of the farm program payments went to the First, Second and Seventh Congressional Districts. Over 90% of the commercial farms in Minnesota are probably in those same Congressional Districts. We would probably be more concerned if the large farm program payments were going to Congressional Districts with very limited agriculture production.

2) The website lists every person or entity that receives a farm program payment (many are not farmers). The data, especially the percentages, can be very misleading unless you account for this factor.

3) Many of the so-called large or mega farms referenced by EWG are multi-family farming operations with more than one family earning a living off the same farm. This is not accounted for in the website data.

4) According to the EWG website, producers in this top 10% category received an average of $33,279/year from 1995-2004, which correlates to an average Midwest corn/soybean farm of about 900-1200 acres for direct, counter-cyclical payments (CCP) and loan deficiency payments (LDP). I would not call that a so-called “large or mega farm” by today’s standards. Besides, most of the farms in that size range are family based farming businesses that are the cornerstone of rural communities in the Midwest.

Of course, there are extreme examples in the national database on the EWG website of persons or corporations receiving unusually high farm program payments. However, in South Central Minnesota and most of the rest of the upper Midwest this does not appear to be the case. As we move forward in designing future farm programs and policy in the U.S., it is important to make sure that we understand all aspects of various data sources and the resulting impacts of the legislation. If we fail to properly account for all factors when developing new farm programs, we may actually make things even worse financially for the family farm businesses that many are trying to protect.

Editors note: Kent Thiesse is a former University of Minnesota Extension educator and now is Vice President of MinnStar Bank, Lake Crystal, MN. You can contact him at 507-726-2137 or via e-mail at kent.thiesse@minnstarbank.com.