Sunday, July 2, 2006

Federal Farm Subsidy: Buy a House, Get A Check from the Feds

Adams The Washington Post has a major story on farm subsidies, now known as countercyclical payments.  It's well worth a read; here's a sample:

Most of the money goes to real farmers who grow crops on their land, but they are under no obligation to grow the crop being subsidized. They can switch to a different crop or raise cattle or even grow a stand of timber -- and still get the government payments. The cash comes with so few restrictions that subdivision developers who buy farmland advertise that homeowners can collect farm subsidies on their new back yards.


"The farm policy we're pursuing now has no rhyme or reason, and we're just sending big checks to big farmers," said Gary Mitchell, now a family farmer in Kansas who was once a top aide to then-Rep. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the 1996 bill's House sponsor. "They're living off their welfare checks."


There're some important political lessons in this:

"The strength of the farm lobby in this town is really unbelievable," [Dick] Armey said. "I don't think there's a smaller group of constituents that has a bigger influence."

Then there's this sad punchline: tenant farmers are being evicted, so that the owners can collect subsidies:

Among the most fervent critics of the annual payments are hundreds of Texas farmers who rent land on which they grow rice. Under the rules, tenants receive the money if they operate the farms. But landlords can simply increase rents to capture those payments.

Other landlords have evicted the tenants from land they had farmed for years. Then the landowners can collect the checks themselves, even if they do not farm.

Stephen J. Zapalac, a former rice farmer, explained what happened:

"As soon as [his landlords] figured they could take the payments, they said, 'I don't need you anymore,' " he said. "They were renting me land for $40 an acre, but they could get $125 an acre from the government."

At least it's a mere $1.3 billion.

Endnotes: There are some great graphics that accompany the story, including a graphic of how the federal farm subsidies evolved from the New Deal to today.  The illustration is an Ansel Adams photograph of farming at the Mazanur relocation camp during World War II.  I was looking for a picture of a farm that received subsidies during the New Deal at the Library of Congress and stubbled upon this, rather different farm.

Al Brophy
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