Freedom to Farm

An analysis of payments to large agribusiness operations, big city residents, and the USDA bureaucracy

February 1, 1996

Freedom to Farm: Chapter 4. Fox in the Henhouse: "Freedom to Farm" Subsidies to the Farm Bureaucracy

Just a few years ago, Senators Dick Lugar (R-IN) and Pat Leahy (D-VT) were dumbfounded to learn that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had no idea how many employees it had. We're not sure if USDA ever nailed down the number, though it was thought to exceed 100,000.

Ironically, if "Freedom to Farm" becomes law, payments will be fixed, predictable, and require almost none of the legendary mountains of paperwork that farm subsidy recipients complain about so much. So, what will become of the vast, federally-paid staff and the farmer "county committees" that constitute the USDA bureaucracy at the local level?

It remains to be seen how many of them will lose their federally-paid jobs. But for some, at least, their own farm subsidies will keep rolling in.

Last year, EWG analyzed farm subsidy payments made to recipients who were identified in USDA payment files as officials in charge of administering farm subsidy programs at the local (county office) level. The results of our analysis were reported in our study, Fox in the Henhouse. We found that thousands of government employees who run Federal farm subsidy programs also participate in them -- big time. In all, we identified over 4,600 people -- more than one out of every five permanent county or state level employees listed in USDA's 1994 subsidy payment files -- who received farm subsidies totaling almost a quarter of a billion dollars ($243 million) between 1985 and 1994. We also found that, relative to the average recipient, those employees and USDA farmer committee members often participate more frequently in the very programs over which they exercise greatest local control. And they receive higher-than-average payments.

"Freedom To Farm" Subsidies to the Farm Bureaucracy

We estimated potential "Freedom to Farm" payments for which local USDA officials will be eligible, based on criteria in the legislation and the deficiency payments they received between 1990 and 1994.

Our analysis found that some 18,498 recipients in the USDA bureaucracy -- employees and former Committee members -- will be eligible for more than $785 million dollars over 7 years (Table 7). They will be eligible for an average of more than $42,000 -- almost $17,000 more than the average recipient (in percentage terms, recipients in the bureaucracy will get 65 percent more than the average.)

Here are our findings:

  • A total of 1,105 full-time employees paid through USDA at county offices across the country will be eligible to receive nearly $22 million in "Freedom to Farm Payments." We estimate that they'll be eligible for just under $20,000 each.
  • A total of 275 "county executive directors" -- the top officials in local USDA county offices -- will be eligible to receive $4.71 million in "Freedom to Farm" subsidy payments over the next 7 years -- over $17,000 each, on average.
  • We identified 1,814 part-time, permanent county employees who will be eligible to receive a total of $56.497 million in "Freedom to Farm" payments ($31,310 in subsidies each). Another 66 full-time, federally paid employees with "temporary" appointments will be eligible for at least $1.1 million in "Freedom to Farm" payments.
  • Enormous payments will be available to recipients who were members of USDA's "farmer committees" at the local level just last year. Altogether, 5,102 of those committee members will be eligible to receive $275.36 million, an average of $54,000 over 7 years. That is more than twice as much as the average recipient will be eligible for under "Freedom to Farm" ($25,798).
  • "Alternate" members of the committees, numbering 10,745, will be eligible for $443.16 million under "Freedom to Farm."
  • All totaled, potential "Freedom to Farm" payments to the farm bureaucracy over the next 7 years could total more than $785 million, paid to almost 18,500 recipients.

Table 7: USDA officials who run the subsidy program will be eligible to receive more than $785 million in "Freedom to Farm" subsidies

Type of USDA official Estimated Freedom to Farm subsidies, 1996-2002 Number of eligible recipients Estimated subsidies per recipient
Full-time, permanent county employees $21,926,790 1,105 $19,843
Part time, permanent county employees $56,796,669 1,814 $31,310
Full-time, temporary county employees $1,094,022 60 $18,234
County Executive Directors $4,710,206 275 $17,128
County Committee Members $275,359,726 5,102 $53,971
County Committee Alternates $443,160,273 10,745 $41,243
Total $785,532,374 18,498 $42,466

Source: Environmental Working Group. Compiled from USDA data.