By offering a free, easy-to-search online list of every federal subsidy paid to every individual farmer, Ken Cooks Environmental Working Group rankles big agriculture at a time when a new Farm Bill remains ensnared in political gridlock.
Northwest wheat farmers broke with tradition recently and invited Cook, an environmental nemesis, to deliver the keynote speech at the Tri-State Grain Growers Convention at the Coeur dAlene Resort.
Some farmers sat with their arms crossed, unhappy with most everything Cook represents: more conservation, more money to support organic agriculture, labeling food made with genetically engineered ingredients, fewer dollars to corporate farms, tougher restrictions on fertilizers and pesticides, deeper support for food stamp programs that now help 47 million Americans half of them children.
Yet despite his stature as one of the worlds most influential environmentalists, it is Cooks exercise in tax-dollar transparency that most riles farmers.
Its misleading, said Colfax, Wash., wheat farmer Larry Cochran. He told Cook the database fails to account for repaid loans.
Cook shot back that the subsidy database is based on figures that the U.S. Department of Agriculture submits to the IRS.
What was going on was going on, he said. We just revealed it.
The database has been searched 390 million times in the past eight years, sparing no subsidies recipient and providing political grist for budget hawks and critics of the nations food system.
More than $277.3 billion in taxpayer subsidies have been given to farmers since 1995. That includes $3 billion to Idaho farmers.
Cook criticizes the Obama administration for secrecy, accusing current USDA leaders of sharply limiting the information sought under the Freedom of Information Act. Former President George W. Bushs administration released more records.
Cook urged farmers to adopt practices that will keep soil productive for centuries. He asked them to become advocates for growing numbers of customers who want food grown with fewer chemicals and humane treatment of animals raised for slaughter.
Eaters have a right to know about their food, he said.
Cook spent a couple of days with wheat farmers and said he was impressed by efforts to combat soil erosion and the technological advancements that continue to make Northwest wheat farms among the most progressive.
Many wore Farm Bill Now buttons at the convention a sign that they are dissatisfied with Republican leaders of the U.S. House, who failed to bring a new Farm Bill to the floor for a vote. The Democratic-led Senate passed a Farm Bill during the summer with bipartisan support.
A new bill is likely to replace the most controversial subsidies with crop insurance premium supports. Cook is skeptical of the premium supports and said his group will work to highlight the cost of a crop insurance subsidy and which farms stand to benefit the most.