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Farmsubsidy.org at a glance

Farmsubsidy.org was founded in 2005 by Danish Nils Mulvad, British Jack Thurston and Danish-German Brigitte Alfter, and subsequently run by DICAR (2005-2007), EU Transparency (2007-2011) and Journalismfund.eu (2011-2017) in collaboration with the Open Knowledge Foundation (2013-current).

The purpose of the project was and is to facilitate access to information on how the EU spends its subsidies under the agricultural policy to allow the citizens an informed debate. The means have been to obtain and provide data about farm subsidy beneficiaries and make them accessible to the public and to further journalism in the field.

Although its history might seem complicated with several hand-overs and changing organisations, the project has basically been run by the same core group of people (Mulvad/DICAR; Thurston/EU Transparency; Alfter/Journalismfund.eu) in good cooperation, with lead responsibility being allocated according to organisational capacity and funding. From 2013 onwards this group was enlarged with team members of the Open Knowledge Foundation Germany.

There is an annual Farmsubsidy.org gathering at the annual European Investigative Journalism Conference & Dataharvest.

Farmsubsidy.org Extended History

Fighting for Data

From 2003 and onwards Danish journalists Nils Mulvad and Kjeld Hansen file a series of freedom of information requests with the Danish ministry of agriculture and in 2004 for the first time in Europe they obtain data about the beneficiaries of the EU’s common agricultural policy (CAP) subsidies, which amount to more than €50 billion per year. Initial media coverage shows that the political narrative of the EU – that its CAP subsidies support the poorest farmers – is flawed as far as Denmark is concerned: large landowners and big agribusiness are the top recipients.

Danish-German EU correspondent Brigitte Alfter learns of her colleagues’ success in Denmark and in the summer of 2004 decides to request similar information from the European Commission, which holds the central data on beneficiaries. Alfter’s request is turned down, a decision that in 2007 the Eu ropean Ombudsman will deem a case of maladministration.

The Dawn of Farmsubsidy.org

However things appear to be moving on national level, and in the spring of 2005 European Commissioner of Administrative Affairs Siim Kallas in his Nottingham-speech calls on “the need for a European Transparency Initiative”. Alfter and her colleagues do not give up either. In 2005 Nils Mulvad and UK researcher and campaigner Jack Thurston get together to co-found the Farmsubsidy.org network, the trio thus starting a yearlong cooperation.

The network’s aim is to obtain data about the CAP beneficiaries and provide it to the public. The network runs mainly on the efforts of the core team (Alfter, Mulvad, Thurston) and a number of collaborating journalists like Staffan Dahllöf. Their main tasks are to file freedom of information requests on a national level and to clean, compile and present the obtained data on the new Farmsubsidy.org website. Journalistic coverage is carried out on a national level whenever new data is obtained.

Farmsubsidy.org is initially hosted at DICAR, the Danish International Center for Analytical Reporting, of which Mulvad is the director. Funding is secured via the Open Society Foundations (€22,800 in 2006) and by developing data journalism training for journalists paid by the European Social Fund in Denmark (€60,000 from 2005 to 2006).< /p>

Consolidating the Network

In the years following the launch, the Farmsubsidy.org team keeps submitting FOI requests for CAP data in capitals all over Europe and writing about it in various national news outlets.

In 2007, part of the Farmsubsidy.org group gathers in Brussels to compile FOI requests and delve into obtained CAP data together in search of stories. Also present at this gathering are people from the new, closely-related Wobbing.eu network of journalists who practice the use of freedom of information legislation as a research tool. That very first meeting lays the foundation for an annual gathering that is to become the European Investigative Journalism Conference and Dataharvest years later.

Efforts Rewarded, Efforts Increased

The team’s work gets noticed in and outside of Europe. In 2007, Mulvad, Alfter and Thurston win the Freedom of Information Award of the American non-profit Investigative Reporters and Editors. The same year Mulvad and Alfter are nominated for the Cavling Prize, the finest Danish award for journalism.

At the same time, it becomes clear that it is not self-evident to keep Farmsubsidy.org operational and financially afloat. By 2008 DICAR closes down. The British non-profit EU Transparency, run by Farmsubsidy.org co-founder Jack Thurston, takes the lead of the Farmsubsidy.org project. Funding is provided by the German Marshall Fund ($165,000 in 2010) and the Hewlett Foundation (a total of $516,000 from 2006 to 2009 to Farmsubsidy.org and othe r activities at EU Transparency).

Pushing Forward

It isn’t until 2009 that EU member states are obliged to publish data about the CAP beneficiaries, following legislation under the European Transparency Initiative launched at long last by Commissioner Kallas. This legislative change causes the tasks of Farmsubsidy.org’s core team and network to shift somewhat, towards accessing and cleaning data as well as developing journalistic coverage.

Meanwhile, the annual Farmsubsidy.org / Wobbing.eu gatherings in Brussels are becoming more formalised. They take place every year in early May, following the annual publication rhythm of fresh official EU CAP data, at the time in late April.

Transparency vs Privacy

The CAP subsidies beneficiaries are starting to fight back, however, demanding less transparency when it comes to natural persons. In 2010, some German farmers state that the publication of the subsidies infringes their privacy rights. The court emphasises the principle of proportionality, after which the EU member states decide to no longer reveal names of natural persons in the official 2011 publication of data. 

Despite the non-publication of names of natural persons, 2011 sees the first ‘real’ edition of the Dataharvest Conference in Brussels. The small crowd – there are about 35 people in all – is a mixture of Farmsubsidy.org people, Wobbing.eu people and people connected to Journalismfund.eu, a new project aimed at furthering in-depth, cross-border journalism in Europe that was set up in 2008 by Brigitte Alfter and the Flemish Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism.

Growing Data

After about four years under the auspices of EU Transparency, Farmsubsidy.org is taken over by the Pascal Decroos Fund’s Journalismfund.eu in 2012. Alfter is now working for Journalismfund.eu as Editor Europe. Financial support is provided by the Open Society Foundations (€50.000 for two years to maintain the data, website and gatherings).

In 2013, Journalismfund.eu becomes its own entity and as a non-profit organisation starts a collaboration with the Open Knowledge Foundation on the technical side of the Farmsubsidy.org project. Supported by the Renewable Freedom Foundation (€5,000 in 2014), German Open Knowledge Foundation coders Stefan Wehrmeyer and Holger Drewes rework the hosting, structuring and presentation of the growing Farmsubsidy.org data sets.

Moving Forward

In 2014, new legislation is passed to answer a 2010 court case introducing thresholds for small beneficiaries who receive less than €1,250. The threshold is decided by member states at varying levels. Still, the Farmsubsidy.org crowd keeps pushing for as much CAP subsidies data as possible and fighting for transparency. In 2015, a Farmsubsidy.org mailing list is set up.

All the while, the Farmsubsidy.org network plays an important part in the annual Brussels gatherings, which by now, under the name European Investigative Journalism & Dataharvest Conference, have turned into full-fledged annual investigative journalism conferences bringing together as many as 400 journalists, coders and scholars from all over Europe.

The amount and complexity of the data sets is by now so massive that in 2017 Journalismfund.eu and the Open Knowledge Foundation Germany agree to clearly divide the tasks: From now on the Open Knowledge Foundation will take the full responsibility of gathering and presenting the data, offering training and analysis and other data related activities, while Journalismfund.eu continues to work with the network of journalists.

And so, the fight for transparency and CAP subsidies data continues.

Brigitte Alfter – December 2017.