Ken Cook has been raising havoc with American farm policy for more than a decade.
By offering a free, easy-to-search online list of every federal subsidy paid to every individual farmer, his Environmental Working Group continues to rankle big agriculture at a time when a new Farm Bill remains ensnared in Washington, D.C., political gridlock.
And his work draws the ire of folks uncomfortable with others snooping into their finances.
On Nov. 13 he met hundreds of them, as Northwest wheat farmers broke with tradition and invited an environmental nemesis to deliver the keynote speech at their Tri-State Grain Growers Convention at the Coeur d’Alene 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 world’s most influential environmentalists, it is Cook’s exercise in tax-dollar transparency that most riles farmers.
“It’s 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 United States Department of Agriculture submits to the Internal Revenue Service.
“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 nation’s food system.
More than $277.3 billion in taxpayer subsidies have been given to farmers since 1995. That includes $4.3 billion to Washington farmers and $3 billion to Idaho farmers.
The database revealed 23 members of Congress, Democrat and Republican, received a total of $6.1 million in federal farm subsidies from 1995 to 2011. No representatives from Washington, Idaho or Oregon were on the list.
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. Bush’s administration released more records.
Cook urged regional 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.
Ritzville, Wash., farmer and Washington state Sen. Mark Schoesler said while he disagrees with Cook’s politics and tactics, he liked the idea of injecting controversial speakers into the convention.
“I think his generalizations of agriculture are dangerous,” Schoesler said. “Hopefully he’ll have learned something to take away, too.”
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.
Washtucna, Wash., farmer Brett Blankenship said Cook offered farmers a chance to hear one of the leading environmental lobbyists and find areas of agreement.
He said Cook’s longtime embrace of incentive-based conservation practices on working lands should be favorable to many farmers.
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.
The last Farm Bill expired in September, and many involved with agriculture are watching the lame-duck session of Congress to see if it can pass a bill.