Full public information about who is getting payments for farm subsidies and conservation programs - including names, addresses, and amounts - is a step closer with the release Thursday of an important USDA database file.
The file is the first of a two-part Freedom of Information request from a public information advocacy group and three news organizations. The second file - the "1614 file" mandated by the 2002 farm bill is expected to be released to the groups in August. When both files are public, the groups will be able to crunch the data to determine with greater accuracy who is receiving the payments for both commodity and conservation payments.
Currently the Environmental Working Group's farm payments database includes the total payments as they are made to the main payee, known as the "entity" - many of whom are individuals, but some of whom are corporations, partnerships, trusts or cooperatives.
To date, that's been the only information available from USDA, but it masks, for instance, the names of individual shareholders in a farming corporation, in an estate trust, or co-op members.
EWG, Atlantic Journal-Constitution, Washington Post, and Multi Ag Media requested two additional database files from USDA under the Freedom of Information Act in order to get the information needed to identify actual payments made to individual recipients who participate under the farm bill's "three entity" rule. (The three entity rule spells out how an individual can participate in farm programs as part of three separate business structures - for example as an individual, as part of a shareholder in a family corporation, and as a beneficiary of an estate trust.)
As a result of that FOIA request made several months ago, USDA made its "Entity File," public on June 8. Sometime in August it will be ready to release its "1614 File," which contains actual payment data.
The massive "entity" file makes public - for the first time - the names, addresses, and business relationships of farmers who receive farm program or conservation payments as part of any business "entity" other than under his/her own name.
The file breaks out the business relationships of those who participate in "entities" such as corporations, partnerships and associations. The release does not include data on actual payments made to shareholders, but that information is scheduled to be released in August when "the 1614 file" is made public.
While the "Entity file" is a working part of the farm program database used routinely by USDA and county committees to make decisions on payment eligibility, the 1614 file is new. It was mandated by section 1614 of the 2002 farm bill to provide information to the public on who benefits from farm programs.
Farm cooperatives have special regulatory treatment and their members are not listed individually in the USDA's entity file, which was released Thursday. Farm program payments to cooperatives, which are passed through to members, are accounted differently.
However, in August when USDA's separate "1614 file" is released, it will list each co-op member as an individual and will identify his/her farm program payments, says Tom Hofeller, associate administrator of the Farm Services Agency. Members will not be listed under the co-op name.
Ken Cook, president of EWG and a long-time crusader for transparency on program payments, said in a statement the new disclosure "took an important step towards complying with a requirement in the 2002 Farm Bill that mandates public disclosure of all beneficiaries of taxpayer-provided farm subsidies."
Cook, who advocates reform of crop subsidies to free up federal funding for conservation efforts, says EWG researchers are preparing to add the new information to the organization's existing Web site (www.ewg.org/farm) detailing all subsidy payments since 1995 (totaling $143 billion).
"These data will make it possible to trace in much greater detail than previously the ownership interests behind some of the largest, most heavily subsidized farm businesses in
EWG's farm subsidy database, which annually gets millions of hits, has been criticized as misleading because - without the data that is now becoming available - it was impossible to determine how some payments were allocated within co-ops and among shareholders.
"The vast majority of farm subsidy beneficiaries - small and medium size operations - are fully transparent and disclosed by USDA and on EWG's Web site. But the largest recipients, including absentee owners of corporations, partnerships and other business ventures, who receive the lion's share of federal farm subsidy money, have yet to have their taxpayer-provided support disclosed," Cook says.
He predicted it would take "weeks if not months" to analyze the data after the 1614 file is released in August.
USDA's release of the data comes at a time when the Bush Administration has signaled its intent to propose reforms to the