COLUMBIA — A federal conservation program originally designed to help small farmers is now disproportionately benefiting industrial livestock operations, according to a report by a family farm advocacy group.
The Campaign for Family Farms and the Environment examined five years of payments through the federal Environmental Quality Incentives Program, known as EQIP.
Nationally, industrial hog operations accounted for 37 percent of all EQIP payments, the group determined, even though such businesses account for less than 11 percent of that industry. Industrial dairies received 54 percent of all EQIP dairy contracts. Such businesses represent only 3.9 percent of all dairy operations.
The study found similar disparities on the state level in Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri.
"This report demonstrates what family farmers have known for years: This corporate-controlled, industrial model of livestock production can't survive without taxpayer support," said Rhonda Perry, a Howard County livestock farmer and program director of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center.
But Don Nikodim, executive vice president of the Missouri Pork Association, said the program is working as Congress intended. Even with the family farm group's estimate that industrial operations are receiving $35 million annually, that still leaves plenty of the $6.1 billion set aside six years ago for other producers.
"It's available to all sizes of producers," Nikodim said. "Small farms can use it just like large farms."
Because of their larger size, industrial operations often own more land and so need more money, he said.
When Congress created the conservation program in the 1996 Farm Bill, grants were limited to $50,000 over five years and waste storage facilities were excluded from eligibility. Participants are required to match the federal payments.
Six years later, lawmakers expanded EQIP to include industrial farms. The maximum payment level was increased to $450,000, with 60 percent of allocations set aside for livestock farmers.
The head of the federal agency that administers EQIP noted that Congress intended the program to be "size neutral."
Contracts issued this year averaged $31,235, with more than 82 percent of payments since 2002 falling under $25,000, said Arlen Lancaster, chief of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Natural Resources Conservation Service.
"Although a handful of large livestock operations have received EQIP funds, they are certainly not the majority," he said.
The 2008 Farm Bill, which awaits congressional approval, proposes reducing the cap on maximum payments to $300,000 overall. But the Agriculture Department can waive the limit for projects with "special environmental significance."
That revision isn't good enough for the report's authors, a group that includes Iowa Citizens for Community Improvement and the Land Stewardship Project in Minnesota.
Among the changes sought: lowering the cap to $150,000; requiring the Agriculture Department to give priority to contracts based on cost-efficiency, not amount of pollution generated; and restoring the prohibition on using EQIP for waste storage.
According to the report, an unidentified producer in Becker County, Minn. received $285,000 in 2003 to build a manure lagoon nearly 1 million cubic feet in size.
And in Missouri, the federal agency has approved a total of nearly $5 million since 2003 to move manure off farms that produce too much waste to apply to their own cropland.
"The money for years has helped support the factory farms' industry under the guise of environmental stewardship," said Lisa Whalen, rural project director for the Iowa citizens' group.
Lancaster, though, noted that fewer than 0.5 percent of the EQIP contracts awarded in Iowa, Minnesota and Missouri since 2002 topped $250,000.
The study defines industrial farms as those with at least 2,000 hogs or more than 500 dairy cows. Those levels are slightly lower than the definition of confined animal feeding operations outlined in the federal Clean Water Act.
The consultant who wrote the EQIP report relied on data from the federal Agricultural Resource Management Survey, conducted by the Agriculture Department every five years, to estimate spending on the conservation program. The family farm advocates want Agriculture Department to eliminate a provision added in the 2002 Farm Bill that the agency says allows it to withhold contract details for privacy reasons.