Agriculture website angers farmers, fails to sway Congress
WASHINGTON - A popular agricultural Web site that scrupulously lists the recipients of billions of dollars in federal farm subsidies has sparked an uproar in rural America as producers claim it is an invasion of privacy.
However, the Web site run by the Environmental Working Group has failed to sway lawmakers, who are in the midst of writing up new farm policy, to allocate more money to protect the environment.
The pro-conservation group hopes the Web site, released to the public last month, would impel lawmakers to replace the multibillion-$1996 \"Freedom to Farm\" law with legislation that provides more money to conservation programs and scales back farm subsidies to big operators.
The information was obtained from the U.S. Agriculture Department under the Freedom of Information Act. As of Tuesday, the Web site - www.ewg.org
- has recorded more than 10.1 million hits, most of them from farmers.
\"My thing is it\'s an invasion of privacy. I don\'t think they should be publishing it,\" said William Olbrich, an Illinois farmer listed on the website as receiving $160,000 in farm subsidies over the last five years.
Many farmers complain that the website was created for political purposes and was misleading, since it lumped together total subsidy payments over five years. \"They\'re trying to make us out as being these huge corporations, which just isn\'t the case at all,\" said Dale Schuler, Montana farmer and past president of the state\'s Grain Growing Association. His cooperative, Schuler Bros. Partnership, pocketed $816,101 in farm subsidies since 1996.
Susanne Fleek, Environmental Working Group\'s director of government relations, said she understood the misgivings but added: \"But we\'ve heard from a lot of farmers that think (the website) is great.\"
Fleek said the group\'s website was receiving attention from some key lawmakers including Senator Richard Lugar, ranking Republican on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Assistant Senate Minority Leader Don Nickles. Both have been critical of the Senate farm bill.
\"(The website has) not been on the frontburner for most lawmakers we talked to,\" said Sam Willett, director of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association. \"But it is being discussed.\"
Despite the efforts by the Environmental Working Group, the current farm proposals in the House of Representatives and Senate would boost government subsidies by $5 billion a year.
\"What EWG has done is put in black and white what people have suspected all the time that the majority of money goes to a small percentage of farmers,\" said a spokesman for Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Tom Harkin. But the website \"hasn\'t changed the substance of the farm bill.\"
Fleek points out that there have been some small victories for environmentalists in the current farm bill debate. Both the House and Senate bills offer substantial increases in farm conservation programs.
The Land and Waters Stewardship program currently gets nearly $2 billion a year. Under the House bill, spending would increase by 80 percent while the Senate proposal would double conservation outlays.
Written every few years, farm bills bundle crop support, conservation, antihunger, export promotion, agricultural research and rural development programs.
Earlier this year, the House passed a $73.5 billion farm bill that would run for an unprecedented 10 years. The Senate has still to pass its own farm legislation.
REUTERS NEWS SERVICE
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