Keeping Secrets Down on the Farm

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Every year, taxpayers send billions to farm businesses to cover the cost of implementing conservation practices that help keep the soil on the land and limit the runoff of dirt and agricultural chemicals from their fields into rivers and streams.

When farm businesses install pollution prevention measures on their farms, taxpayers pay between 50 and 75 percent of the cost – which they don’t do for non-farm businesses.

Many view this public/private partnership as a forced compromise between agribusiness and taxpayers to give farm operations an incentive to deal with their pollution problems without government regulation. Pollution from farm fields is exempt from regulation under the Clean Water Act.

Want to find out how much good that money is doing? You’re out of luck.

Under federal law, farm businesses are allowed to keep secret what anti-pollution practices they’re implementing, and where. Without that information, it’s impossible to make an independent assessment of what taxpayers are getting for their money. How’s that for accountability?

The blame for this situation rests with the 2008 farm bill.  During the closed negotiations between the House and Senate agriculture committees over the final language, a provision was inserted that prohibits the US Department of Agriculture from telling the public precisely where any taxpayer-funded conservation practice has been implemented.  Oddly enough, the law specifically authorizes the release of “payment information and the names and addresses of recipients of payments,” but not the location, or in some cases the type of conservation practice, that is being installed.

The public can find out that a payment can be made to a “farmer” in Manhattan, New York, but not learn that the practice being funded was located just outside Manhattan, Kansas. That effectively prevents any independent assessment of the program’s effectiveness.  Even if the money is going to an actual farmer in Adams County, Iowa, to put in a grass waterway – a simple conservation measure that mitigates run-off – all USDA will tell you is that the project was funded somewhere in Adams County, but not exactly where.

Consider what would happen if a local, family-owned car wash, having been gently asked to stop dumping chemical-based cleansers into a town’s river, went to the city council and asked it to pay 75 percent of the cost of a pollution-control device. Suppose the city agreed but decided that it would keep secret what device was installed, whether it was maintained and whether it was ever turned on. How would the citizenry respond to that?

Well, that’s pretty much how USDA’s conservation programs work. Some argue that a farmer’s right to privacy about how he manages his business trumps the taxpayer’s right to find out whether tax dollars are being used effectively and in accordance with the law. Sure, industry has a right to protect proprietary business information such as unique processes or methods. But what possible competitive edge could farmer Jones harvest from farmer Smith’s efforts to conserve soil and protect water?


It’s a different story when it comes to industry. Businesses that don’t adequately address their pollution face far more than embarrassment over coffee at the corner café. When a company is told to address the pollution coming from its factory, the taxpayer says, in effect, “You shall install this equipment, you shall pay 100 percent of the cost, you shall submit regular reports on your emissions, you shall allow unannounced verification inspections and provide data on the pollution your factory emits, and that information shall be open to the public so it can evaluate progress or lack of it.” And if inspections find that the plant polluted the air or water above a set threshold, the company, even if it’s family-owned, faces legal and financial penalties.

Agricultural businesses, meanwhile, have enjoyed a sweetheart deal for the past half-century – they’ve been asked, not told, to control their pollution. They’ve been handed billions in tax dollars so they don’t have to pay for most of the cost themselves. And they’ve been allowed to keep secret what they do with the money.

The least that should be expected of farm businesses, given this enviable arrangement, is public access to data that enables independent evaluation and verification.

Ronald Reagan smiled and said, “Trust but verify.” Congress also smiled, but it said, “Trust agribusiness, and by the way, no need to verify.”

The time has come for farm bill language that specifically gives taxpayers the right to know the details of the practices farms adopt to prevent pollution, their exact location, how well their measures match up to extent of the pollution and whether they are being correctly managed.


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