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Here’s how agriculture subsidies shape the food we eat

Corn and soybeans grow on a farm on near Tipton, Iowa.
Corn and soybeans grow on a farm on near Tipton, Iowa.

Matthew Werner runs a 600-acre farm in northwest Indiana. Since the early 1900s, his family has grown crops, primarily soybeans and corn, on the same plot of land. His operation benefits from crop insurance, a program that pays farmers through the United States Department of Agriculture.

“I believe about two thirds of your crop insurance is subsidized and paid for by American taxpayers. So that basically guarantees a certain level of production and a certain price on a per acre basis,” Matt explains.

Some $425 billion has been allocated for agricultural subsidies over the past 25 years according to the Environmental Working Group. Only a small portion of those funds are going to farms like Matt’s. The EWG estimates the top 1 percent of recipients receive 26 percent of all the money.

“Farm subsidies are allocated on a per acre basis. So the more farmland you own, the more subsidies you qualify for,” says Anne Schechinger, the Midwest Director for EWG.

The organization released a report called Cityslickers that tracks the number of individuals who receive subsidies but don’t actually work on farms. They’re simply landowners.

Shechinger argues the way agricultural subsidies are designed continues to widen the wealth equity gap between Black and white farmers in the U.S. The latest COVID-19 stimulus package included $5 billion for the USDA to allocate land specifically for Black farmers. However, the legislation is being challenged in federal court and money is yet to be distributed.

John Boyd Jr. is the president of the Black Farmer’s Association and a fourth-generation farmer based in Virginia. He’s calling for a meeting with President Joe Biden to push for greater equity in agriculture.

“In this country, the larger you are the more participation you get from the USDA. The average Black farmer owns 50 acres of land. I’ve had multiple conversations with Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsak. You can’t keep saying you’re going to fix the problem and then never fix it,” Boyd Jr. argued.

For Matt in Indiana, the issue is education. He says more people need to be aware of how the government supports agriculture in this country and how that impacts the food we grow and eat.

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