By LIBBY QUAID
The Associated Press
Tuesday, December 19, 2006; 6:48 PM
WASHINGTON -- For the first time, the Agriculture Department is revealing just who has received billions of dollars in farm subsidy payments, officials said Tuesday.
The department plans to release a database of about $56 billion in subsidies on Wednesday.
But people will have to wait to look up their neighbors' payments, because the 64 million records are too unwieldy for the department's Web site.
Instead, the department is providing the information to several news organizations and the Environmental Working Group, a public interest group that tracks payments and intends to post the data online for Internet users.
"It should provide a lot more information than we've been able to get, particularly for farmers who have been receiving money through co-ops," said Ken Cook, president of EWG. "This will be the first chance to see how much they've gotten,"
The records are particularly relevant now, because Congress is due to overhaul the nation's farm programs in 2007, Cook said.
"I expect it will once again highlight the inequities in the program," Cook said. "The big guys get most of the money. I don't think anything will change with respect to that. We just may be able to quantify it a little bit better."
Lawmakers are facing a tighter budget and may try to close loopholes that allow some to collect millions of dollars above a $360,000 limit on farm payments.
The payments are public information, but tracking down how much individuals receive has been difficult and sometimes impossible. The government reports payments to companies or organizations but has not always reported the names of owners or members of those firms or groups.
Records being released Wednesday will detail individual farmers who receive subsidy program benefits.
"So you can find out who this individual is," said Brad Karmen, assistant deputy administrator for farm programs.
Teresa Lasseter, administrator of the department's Farm Service Agency, said it took thousands of hours for employees to assemble the database. Congress ordered the department to track payments to farmers in the 2002 farm law.
Government payments to farmers are expected to total $16.5 billion this year, down from $24.3 billion in 2005 and up from $13 billion in 2004, according to department estimates.
On the Net:
Agriculture Department: http://www.usda.gov
Environmental Working Group: http://www.ewg.org