Environmental group says large farms would benefit from disaster aid pushed by Ark. senator

By Andrew Demillo, AP
Thursday, August 5, 2010

Report: Large farms benefit from Ark. sen.’s plan

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Large-scale farms would disproportionately benefit from a $1.5 billion disaster aid package for which Sen. Blanche Lincoln says she’s secured funding, an advocacy group said in a report released Thursday.

Lincoln, who is in a tough re-election fight in Arkansas, has said she’s received assurances from the White House that the Agriculture Department would fund $1.5 billion administratively for farmers who lost crops in 2009. Democrats agreed to cut the aid from a small business lending bill last week.

The Environmental Working Group on Thursday projected that the largest share of the aid — $210 million — could go to Lincoln’s home state with 270 farms collecting more than $100,000 each in disaster subsidies.

“There’s the general question of whether we should be subsidizing these big operations year in and year out,” said Ken Cook, president of the Washington-based nonprofit group.

The advocacy group’s report said that because qualifying farmers would receive disaster aid equal to 90 percent of their direct payments in 2009, farmers could see their subsidies nearly double. The biggest prospective recipient, Ratio Farms of Helena-West Helena, Ark., stands to receive $787,000 in disaster aid under the plan, on top of $874,000 in subsidies the operation collected last year, the report said.

“Small farmers who lost their entire crop are likely to get less help than big farmers who still brought in 95 percent of their crops,” the group said in its report.

Lincoln, who announced she secured the funding last week, is considered one of the most vulnerable incumbents seeking re-election this year. The Democratic lawmaker survived a bruising contest for the Democratic nomination earlier this year but is trailing her Republican challenger, Rep. John Boozman, in most polls.

Lincoln chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee and has been touting her work on that panel in her re-election bid.

She defended the way the money would be distributed from the aid package and denied that it would disproportionately help larger farms.

“Payment follows production, and if we’re going to feed the 6.6 billion people on the face of this earth, I think we need everybody that farms out there. … We’re feeding and clothing the world and it’s important that we make sure we keep our domestic producers competitive,” Lincoln said.

The disaster aid deal has angered black lawmakers who have been seeking the same kind of arrangement for more than a year to pay for an unfunded, $1.2 billion settlement agreement between black farmers and USDA, only to be told that no money was available. Lincoln on Thursday urged senators to support funding the settlement.

It is unclear if the Agriculture Department has the authority to dole out the disaster money, because that is usually done by Congress. Neither USDA nor the White House would comment when asked if it was possible to distribute the disaster payments administratively.

Lincoln told reporters there is a precedent for the aid to be funded administratively.

“There’s absolutely the vehicle and the opportunity to do that. I’ve got a commitment from them and I have visited with the White House today and we’re working on making it happen,” Lincoln said.

Associated Press Writer Mary Clare Jalonick in Washington contributed to this report.

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