After decades of releasing the names of everyone who receives farm subsidy payments, the USDA has changed course, hiding the names of a portion of farm subsidy recipients. An advocacy group that publishes the data says that the decision to withhold recipient names obscures how billions of dollars of taxpayer money is spent.
“It’s a mystery as to why the USDA began to hide the names of many recipients,” said Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs for the Environment Working Group (EWG), which files a Freedom of Information Request every year to obtain information about who receives farm subsidies, where the recipients live and how much they get. That information then goes into a public database that dates back to 1995. The most recent version, which contains data from 2020 and 2021, was released Wednesday.
This year, for the first time, the USDA elected to withhold the names of some recipients and instead released only the names of the lending institutions that funneled the money to those individuals. An EWG analysis shows that the agency obscured about 6% of farm subsidy recipients’ names. While that percentage may sound low, they collectively received $3.1 billion — which is about one-fifth of the USDA’s average annual farm subsidy budget between 2015 and 2019.
Because of the recent change, Faber said, “policymakers and others are now unable to determine whether or not our farm safety net is serving farmers who are on the verge of economic ruin or is enriching large commercial operators.”
The USDA didn’t return a request for comment from FERN.
Faber said the agency told them the changes occurred because of a software update to its reporting system in 2019, during the Trump administration. The USDA has denied the nonprofit’s appeals requesting the names of the obscured individuals.
The agency’s new reporting system did reveal that a financial branch of the USDA, the Farm Service Agency, received $350 million in farm subsidy payouts — more than any other lending institution. In other words, Faber said, the financial institution that received the most farm subsidies was the USDA itself.
Faber said smaller farmers need help adapting to the reality of climate change and the USDA’s lack of transparency over who is getting subsidies makes the situation worse. “It’s hard to reform that safety net if our policymakers don’t know where the money is going,” Faber said. “It’s like a doctor trying to diagnose your illness when they don’t know what medicines you’re already on.”