The Farm Bill: Safety Net for Family Farmers or Bailout for Billionaires?

Will the next federal farm bill reopen the loopholes that once allowed millionaires and billionaires – stockbroker Charles Schwab, Microsoft founder Paul Allen, banking tycoon David Rockefeller, Sr. and dozens of others – to receive federal farm subsidies?

A provision of the House farm bill that was debated this week by negotiators from both houses of Congress would eliminate a longstanding means test for for some corporate farms.

Under current law, farm couples with an annual gross income of more than $1.8 million are ineligible for subsidies for commodities like corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, rice and peanuts. Congress first created a farm subsidy means test in 2002, and has since tightened it in 2008 and 2014.

But Sec. 1603 of the House bill now under consideration would exempt certain farm partnerships, joint ventures and other corporate farms from the means test.  If included in the final farm bill, many millionaires and billionaires will no doubt reorganize their farm businesses to exploit this new loophole.

By contrast to the House bill, the bill that overwhelmingly passed the Senate would further tighten the means test, denying subsidies to couples with an annual gross incomeof more than $1.4 million.

EWG previously reported, 50 members of the Forbes 400 list of the richest Americans got at least $6 million each in farm subsidies between 1995 and 2008.

When we matched EWG’s Farm Subsidy Database with the Forbes 400 list, we found that the billionaires who received these subsidies have a collective net worth of $331.4 billion. Some of the other notable members of the 1 percent who once got farm subsidies include the owners of three professional sports teams and the founder of the Bass Pro Shops sporting goods empire.

Of the 50 billionaires, 46 grow corn, soybeans, sorghum, cotton, rice and barley, which are among the covered commodities that make growers eligible for subsidies. Two of the billionaires exclusively raise livestock, which aren’t eligible for commodity subsidies but qualify for disaster assistance funding from the Department of Agriculture.

None of these billionaires have received subsidies for covered commodities since 2008.

If the House provision is included in the final farm bill, some billionaires may reorganize their businesses to become eligible for subsidies – even if they didn’t get them in the past. Those billionaires might even include Microsoft founder Bill Gates, who has bought thousands of acres of farmland in Georgia and Florida, and Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who bought virtually an entire Hawaiian island with grandiose plans for a complex of produce greenhouses.

Since 2008, America has produced many new billionaires, including Frank Vandersloot, who owns three farms and has received hundreds of thousands of dollars of subsidies in the past. Other new billionaires with farms include Elizabeth Johnson, Richard Sands, Carolyn Rafaelin, who also owns a castle, and the Lykes family.

Americans support providing a farm safety net for family farmers – not for billionaires. But the farm bill could turn the spigot back on for America’s aristocracy.

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