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Farm subsidy outrage

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What follows falls in the realm of the “It-can’t-possibly-be-true category,” but it is and it’s an outrageous example of how this nation’s political system has become increasingly dysfunctional. The issue is farm subsidies, and the salient fact is that the federal government spent $1.3 billion in subsidies for rice and other crops since 2000 to individuals who do no farming at all.

None. Some of the individuals collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in crop subsidies without even planting a seed. Mary Anna Hudson, an 87-year-old resident of the River Oaks neighborhood in Houston, received $191,000 over the past decade, according to research done by the Washington Post and reported in last Sunday’s edition. Houston surgeon Jimmy Frank Howell received a total of $490,709 over the same period, while 67-year-old Donald Matthews of El Campo, Texas, built his dream house in the heart of rice country on an 18-acre suburban lot and he receives $1,300 in annual “direct payments” on the 17 acres that surrounds his elaborate home. Matthews, an asphalt contractor, readily admits he’s “no farmer” and disagrees with the government’s policy, but his desire to give the money back to the government was fruitless, so he now takes the money and has created scholarships for the local school and 4-H club.

The insult of such government waste is maddening. As Vermont dairy farmers struggle with low milk prices, high fuel costs and disastrous weather, the Post reports that the congressional bill passed in 1996 (the first year the Republicans swept into control of the House) as the Freedom to Farm Act has seen farm payments grow into “an even larger subsidy that benefits millionaire landowners, foreign speculators and absentee landlords, as well as farmers.”

Ironically, the bill was supposed to have eliminated costly farm subsidies that had been in place for decades. It didn’t turn out that way. While most of the money under the program does go to real farmers who grow crops on their land, the Post reports, “the farmers are under no obligation to grow the crop being subsidized. They can switch to a different crop, 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 payments,” the Post continues, “now account for nearly half of the nation’s expanding agricultural subsidy system, a complex web that has little basis in fairness or efficiency. What began in the 1930s as a limited safety net for working farmers has swollen into a far-flung infrastructure of entitlements that has cost $172 billion over the past decade. In 2005 alone, when pretax farm profits were at a near-record $72 billion, the federal government handed out more than $25 billion in aid — almost 50 percent more than the amount it pays to families receiving welfare.”

The Post’s nine-month investigation found that the farm subsidy programs in the nation’s Mid-Western Farm Belt “have become so all-encompassing and generous that they have taken much of the risk out of farming for the increasingly wealthy individuals who dominate it … The system pays farmers a subsidy to protect against low prices even when they sell their crops at higher prices. It makes “emergency disaster payments” for crops that fail even as it provides subsidized insurance to protect against those failures. And it pays people … for merely owning land that was once farmed.”

The impact of the law has been most dramatic in Texas. In 1981, the Post reported, the Texas rice belt covered about 600,000 acres, but by 2005 the amount of rice planted had been reduced to about 202,000 acres. The reason? Because landowners were able, the Post reported, to get about $37 million in farm subsidies in just 2005 for land that was never planted. Amazingly, the former rice land is being sold in residential building lots of more than an acre and the United States Department of Agriculture allows the new owner to consider all but one acre (with the house on it) as farm land to qualify for the farm subsidies.

Equally amazing is that some of the rice land has been turned into pasture for cattle, which allows the farmer to raise cattle, sell them at market and also pocket the farm subsidy — at $125 an acre — for the rice payment.

Meanwhile, Vermont dairy farmers graciously accepted the $8.6 million in cash subsidies the Vermont Legislature and Gov. Jim Douglas offered last week as a way to stave off foreclosure. President Bush and this Republican-led Congress, on the other hand, killed the Northeast dairy compact a few years ago and have refused to revive it — proving, once again, under this administration, it pays to have friends in high places and if you don’t, you’re screwed.

And that’s a sad commentary on the state of our democracy.

Angelo S. Lynn

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