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Wealthy Ag Lobbies Cry Poor

Friday, November 12, 2010

Welcome to Kernel Watch, a time-to-time AgMag series looking at the follies, excesses and outright distortions spouted by agribusiness and its PR and lobby arms. Their goal is to keep consumers in the dark about what’s in the food they eat, to fight needed reforms that would protect America's land and water, and to preserve the flow of taxpayer dollars to the largest commodity crop producers.

Over the weekend (Nov. 7), the Des Moines Register reported that retail giant Walmart is looking to increase the sustainability of its grocery items by providing its customers with more local and organic foods. Paula Crossfield at Civil Eats has been keeping close tabs on Walmart's efforts (Oct. 22) and what its actions might bode for traditional agribusiness. She drills down into the specific and desperate-sounding tactics agribiz plans to employ to convince consumers of the benefits of their products:

In fact, agribusiness elites have been trying either covertly or otherwise to convince the consumer that sustainable food advocates have misled them into thinking the current food system is unsafe, unjust and unhealthy. And the evidence shows that more of the same is coming down the pipeline.

Just last month, the subscriber newsletter Agri-Pulse reported that Tip Tipton – the man behind the “Got Milk?” campaign – has been tapped to create an “ag image” campaign that seeks “to reverse consumers’ negative perceptions about a broad range of issues including so-called ‘factory farming,’ the use of agricultural chemicals, livestock management practices, processed ‘industrial food,’ and high-fructose corn syrup (HFCS).” The amount the parties involved feel would be needed to reverse the tide of “consumer backlash”? Twenty to 30 million dollars per year. These groups hope to get funding from companies like Monsanto and Cargill and will be seeking out commodity check-off program funding via commodity growers if possible.

The $30 million dollar industrial ag PR campaign reported on by Civil Eats and Agri-pulse was made public yesterday (Nov 11).  American Farm Bureau President Bob Stallman will lead the U.S. Farmers & Ranchers Alliance (USFRA), which appears to be a coordinated big-money effort to unite all of Big Ag's many tentacles.

Despite this news, the Ag Lobby is making head-scratching assertions about how their poor fiscal health prevents them from fighting back against its critics and increasingly skeptical consumers.

National Corn Growers Association Communications Director Ken Colombini told Agri-Pulse:

There is actually a very positive image of corn farmers and corn growers out there… [But] Food, Inc. almost won an Oscar. The other side is getting so much more funding, so much more interest in the mainstream media… We’ve seen so many attacks… we see Michael Pollan going on Oprah… what’s going to happen when those people like Michael Pollan start to have an impact in Washington on policies and regulations?

Unsurprisingly, the Corn Growers’ line mirrors recent remarks made by former Republican congressman and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest of Texas.  Combest is currently a spokesman for the agribusiness PR front group The Hands That Feed US. Back in August he said:

"It's ironic that opponents of farm policy wrongly vilify our industry as rich corporate agribusinesses, yet we don't always have the funds to properly defend ourselves."

Agriculture is big business in America, and business is good. In the past decade, farm operations have seen the highest five years ever for farm income. Prices for farmland have seen such a meteoric rise that many analysts are warning of a bubble. And as my colleague David DeGennaro ably points out:

In 2008, $210,000 just happened to be the average household income of farms that received at least $30,000 in government payments that year.

Yet Mr. Combest contends "we don't always have the funds to properly defend ourselves."

What this really boils down to is the upcoming Farm Bill debate. The federal budget deficit is a driving factor for “Tea Party” legislators and other lawmakers and who ran on limited government and less spending. Many of those newly elected budget slashers may target the lavish government payments to large wealthy farm operations. Those have amounted to a quarter of trillion in taxpayer dollars since 1995.

For sure, there is a need for a true safety net that equitably provides a measure of support for farmers when faced with the vagaries of Mother Nature and fickle markets.

But of that $250 billion in farm subsidies, 90 percent went to the growers of just five favored commodity crops -- rice, cotton, corn, wheat and soybeans. Additionally, EWG data clearly shows that three quarters of those subsidies went to the largest and wealthiest 10 percent of farm operations. When Big Ag claims it has limited funds for PR efforts, it’s worthwhile to look at the financial details of the lobbyist groups that represent commodity crop producers in Washington.

-- The National Cotton Council reported total revenue in 2008 of $13.17 million. In 2008 cotton growers took in more than $1.5 billion in taxpayer-funded federal farm subsidies.

-- The USA Rice Federation reported total revenue for 2009 of $12.6 million. In 2009, rice growers collected more than $434 million in subsidies.

-- The American Soybean Association reported total 2009 revenues of $20 million. In 2009, soybean growers banked more than $1.7 billion in farm subsidies.

-- The National Association of Wheat Growers reported total revenue for 2009 of $1.4 million. In 2009, wheat growers received tidy government payments totaling more than $2.2 billion in subsidies. In a notable show of lobbying force, the Wheat Growers deployed 20 staff members to a Washington DC PR event in October.

-- The National Corn Growers Association reported total revenue in 2009 of $9.6 million. The same year, corn growers took in a whopping total of nearly $4 billion in subsidies. (The NCGA, it should also be noted, just dumped $1 million plus on a marketing campaign targeting Washington lawmakers.)

So the idea that agribusiness lobbyists don't have the funds to properly “defend” their continuing cornucopia of taxpayer dollars does not even come close to passing the smell test.

And that’s just the five biggest national commodity crop groups.

We haven’t yet scrubbed the host of other agribusiness lobbyists who are paid to make sure that the farm subsidy spigot remains wide open and to keep pollution regulators off their backs. That list includes the American Farm Bureau Federation -- and its state-based arms. All the big commodity groups listed above have robust and well-funded state-based lobby arms as well, including Illinois Corn, the Minnesota Soybean Growers, the North Dakota Wheat Commission, the Texas Cotton Association and the Arkansas Rice Board. Then add in shills for agrichemical companies like Syngenta and Monsanto and the maze of astroturf groups created by industrial food lobbyist Richard Berman and the newly spawned USFRA.

But eventually at Kernel Watch, we'll put them under the microscope, too.

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