What’s new with Noem and farm subsidies?

The activist Environmental Working Group came out last week with an eye-popping report headline on a report: “Taxpayers Paid $6.2 Million in Farm Subsidies to Members of Congress, Families.” And right near the top of the report, below Rep. Stephen Fincher, R-Tenn. (who with his wife collected $3.5 million in agricultural support), is South Dakota’s own Rep. Kristi Noem. EWG says she’s received $480,790.

But it’s important to read carefully to figure out exactly what EWG is reporting here. They’re not saying Noem received almost $500,000 while sitting as a member of Congress (she was sworn in on Jan. 3, 2011). They’re saying that Noem’s received that much since the start of its invaluable database in 1995.

Noem’s receipt of farm subsidies was well-reported in her 2010 campaign against Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin (though I’m sure not as heavily reported as Noem’s opponents would have wished), when people tossed around a $3 million figure that included money paid to Noem’s family as well as herself.

So what’s new here? EWG has two years in its report that weren’t there during Noem’s campaign for the House: 2010 and 2011.

In each those years, Noem personally received $1,370 in direct farm payments. It’s the first time Noem had personally received any direct payments since 1997. She’s never gotten very much money personally in direct payments — her EWG page even lists her with a negative value, though that’s an accounting illusion reflecting a repayment Noem made in the first year of EWG’s database of federal money she had previously received.

The real money in Noem’s farm subsidy past comes from the family-owned Racota Valley Ranch. That’s the place that’s received more than $3 million since 1995, $2.6 million of which was direct payments, $380,000 in disaster subsidies and $186,000 in conservation payments.

In 2008, the last year the U.S. Department of Agriculture made this information available to EWG, Noem was listed as having a 16.9 percent share in the ranch. Extrapolating that figure to the present day, EWG comes up with its $480,790 figure.

In 2010 and 2011, the two years that weren’t public when Noem first ran for Congress, Racota Valley received $71,916 and $68,549 in total farm subsidies (most of that in direct payments).

But Noem’s spokesperson said the congresswoman actually sold her interest in Racota Valley in 2008. That would mean she personally hasn’t received any farm payments, other than the two personal $1,370 payments, since she took office. That would also take about $37,000 off Noem’s EWG estimate (removing the figures for 2009, 2010 and 2011).

Of course, Racota Valley is still a family-owned ranch, so Noem’s close relatives are still benefitting from these payments even if she personally isn’t. And the EWG data doesn’t include crop insurance, a major program for South Dakota farmers (and one in which Noem has a personal connection, with her husband, Bryon, owning a crop insurance business).

An interesting, possibly meaningless side note: Racota Valley racked up that $3 million figure chiefly in a few big years: 1999, 2000, 2001, 2005 and 2006. Those five years accounted for $1.9 million of the $3.1 million Racota Valley received from 1995 to 2011.

If you draw a cutoff in the year 2007 (when Racota Valley’s payments fell by two-thirds from $258,000 to $87,000), then from 2007 to present Racota Valley received an average of $86,688 per year. That’s a lot of money, but not compared to 1995-2006, when the ranch received an average $230,431 per year. Probably coincidentally, 2007 is when Noem began serving in the state Legislature.

The final important bit of context is the upcoming farm bill, which the House is scheduled to mark up in a week or two. The already-passed Senate version eliminates these direct payments while preserving the crop insurance program, and the House version might do the same. Noem has said that’s a move she can support. It’s also a popular move in South Dakota, if you have to cut any farm subsidies. Northern states benefit much more from crop insurance than they do from direct payments, which disproportionately go to southern farmers. 

Of possible relevance: here’s a list of the Varileks who’ve received farm subsidies over that time. I’ve reached out to the Varilek campaign to see if any of them are closely related to Matt.

This EWG report doesn’t have very much new information about Kristi Noem’s relationship to farm subsidies, though by reviving the issue of Noem’s past payments they’re not doing any favors to her.