Fed Agency Stuffs Special Interest Stockings with $50M
Policy + Politics

Fed Agency Stuffs Special Interest Stockings with $50M

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

It’s been Christmas all year long for special interest groups that have cozied up to the Department of Agriculture and reaped the benefits. Trade organizations for Christmas tree farms, wineries, pecan farmers and pear growers all had their stockings filled with more than $50 million worth of grants this year.

Although some of that money went toward helping these groups grow their businesses, some of it also paid for neat but seemingly unnecessary projects like an app that locates the nearest winery.

Related: Government Blatantly Wastes $30 Billion This Year

That’s according to Sen. Tom Coburn’s latest “Wastebook” report, which highlights the most egregious waste of taxpayer dollars each year. USDA made several appearances in this years report, including questionable awards through the Specialty Block Grant Program.

“Just days before the impending shutdown when much of Washington was bracing for a protracted closure of most government offices and activities, USDA decided to celebrate Christmas early by funding six Christmas tree projects and—in the spirit of holiday cheer—35 different wine initiatives,” Coburn said in the report.

One of the recipients, Whispering Meadow Vineyards and Winery from Coburn’s home state of Oklahoma, received $200,000 to purchase new equipment including “11 new tanks and a new automated bottling machine” to increase wine production.

Karen Stobaugh, owner of Whispering Meadows, defended the award to Tulsa's Fox 23, saying it “was good for the state” since the extra equipment boosted production, allowing them to add new employees. "I don't see what part of it could be wasteful," Stobaugh said.

The federal grants come at a time when the government is severely tightening its belt and making tough decisions about where to cut costs. Indeed, the recent cuts to USDA’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) left more than 46 million Americans with less food to eat this year. Starting in November, a family of four that gets $668 per month in SNAP benefits will see that amount drop by $36.

Related: Food Stamp Program Hit by $5 Billion in Automatic Cuts

“This year, more than 637,000 Oklahomans saw a decrease in food assistance provided by the USDA,” Coburn said in the report. “While these Oklahoma families adjusted to a smaller budget to put food on their tables, USDA was simultaneously spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to serve up more Oklahoma wine.”

Here are some other tax dollar-funded stocking stuffers highlighted in the report:

Selling Christmas Trees  Washington State University received $117,243 to help Christmas tree growers increase their crop value by developing and sharing the best management practices to control pests. The Virginia Christmas Tree Association also received federal money to help promote the Christmas tree business during the holidays. Your tax dollars helped pay for the shearing, marketing and promotion of Christmas Trees, as well as several studies to determine consumer purchasing behavior in Florida and South Carolina.

To Show off U.S. Pears in China The Pear Bureau Northwest received $100,000 to travel to Southern China and spread awareness about the deliciousness of U.S. pears. According to language from the grant, the “Pear Roadshow” will help “supermarket shoppers in China, as well as children, increase their awareness about USA Pears including varieties, availability, ripening, nutrition, and usage.”

Increasing Cider Awareness  In case you weren’t already familiar, the Northwest Cider Association accepted a USDA grant of $100,000 to “increase awareness and distribution of northwest cider and to ensure a supply of cider apples to meet the growing demand.” This will include a domestic marketing campaign as well as research on project mechanical harvesting.

Making Plums Cool  Sunsweet Growers, Inc. was awarded $400,000 to market plums to a younger market, since the California plum market is largely 55 and older. The California Dried Plum Board was also awarded a grant to popularize its product on social media to in an attempt to reach out to the prune markets in Japan and South Korea.

Promoting a Syrup Celebration in Vermont  Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association received to organize and promote Maple Weekend, which includes a recipe contest, tours of sugarhouses, as well as promotional activities.

Wine   Some 35 wine related projects were funded this year including two smart phone apps that help people located the nearest winery. The awards funding those app projects are two of seven grants totaling $430,000 to New Mexico specialty crop projects to promote wine, as well as chili peppers and pecans. The Washington State Wine Commission was also awarded $45,000 to conduct a reverse trade mission with wine buyers and travel journalists from China and Canada. Other projects are going toward promoting wine trails and improving wine tasting satisfaction as well as creating a West Virginia wine trail publication and hosting a Wine Pavilion at the South Dakota State Fair. -Follow Brianna Ehley on Twitter @BriannaEhley

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