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Farm Subsidy Recipients Say the Darndest Things

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

In the month since EWG's 2010 update of our Farm Subsidy Database, subsidy recipients and program defenders have been reacting in interesting ways to the new data. Here's a roundup:

Tennessee congressional candidate Stephen Fincher, a Tea Party favorite, has been at the receiving end of negative media coverage for accepting $3.2 million in subsidy payments despite preaching the gospel of limited government. On Sunday (June 6), the Memphis Commercial Appeal published his response to word of his government windfall:

Fincher says the amounts in the EWG database are incorrect.

"That amount is false. It's a lie," he said Friday, explaining that he typically receives between $170,000 and $200,000 a year in subsidies. "A lot of that (subsidy) money is loans that are repaid back through the cotton program and that money doesn't actually end up in my pocket."

"The farm subsidy program is something that was put into place over 60 years ago and it was put into place to do one thing and it's turned into something else," Fincher added. "Do we need farm program reform? Absolutely."

Fincher's spokesman offered up this tepid comment on the staunch conservative's receipt of government largess:

Stephen's never had a chance to vote on the farm program.

That makes more than 300 million of us.

Sorry to break it to Mr. Fincher, but the data EWG publishes comes directly from US Department of Agriculture, which writes his checks. While Mr. Fincher may be using the taxpayer-funded subsidies to pay back loans he took out to plant or harvest his crops -- it's still a subsidy.  There are plenty of businesses out there that would love to be handed, no strings attached, a couple million bucks to pay off their loans. For that matter, there are thousands of citizens who would enjoy a government subsidy to pay off the loan they took from the auto dealership for that misguided purchase of a Hummer a few years back.

Clint Didier is another Tea Party candidate, running for the Senate from the state of Washington. As the Seattle Times reported, he also banks federal farm subsidy payments:

A former NFL player turned farmer, Didier has repeatedly called the federal government "a predator." He vows to oppose the "Marxist utopia" he says Democrats want to create — "where everyone is taken care of from womb to tomb."

Reached by phone Monday as he worked an alfalfa field, Didier acknowledged receiving federal subsidies, but said he favors weaning farms off such payments. (He disputed the amount he has received, pegging it at no more than $140,000.)

Didier said farmers pretty much have to participate in the subsidy program or be at a competitive disadvantage. "If your neighbor has an advantage he is in the position to buy the next farm up for sale," he said.

"I say we get the government completely out of the market," he said. "Let's get rid of the farm bill. Let's get rid of all of it."

Like Fincher, Didier attempts to deflect criticism of his "socialist" leanings by saying he didn't take in as much as was reported in the database. Again, that data comes directly from USDA. He also claims that if elected, he would bring drastic reform to the program he profits from.

Didier has also found a defender of his subsidies in the person of columnist Bruce Ramsey of the Seattle Times, the same paper that broke the story on his payments:

I talked to Didier a few days after the story came out. Clearly he was taken aback by the public reaction.

"I didn't set the rules of the game; I only played by the rules. And I want to change the rules," he said. "I'm willing to give up these farm subsidies. We need to get the government out of creating all these dependencies."

So the subsidies were not big. But he did take them. Does that mean we can dismiss him as a spokesman for a philosophy of small government?

I don't think so.

Consider a different farmer, one who takes the money and supports the program. The advocates of subsidies may privately suspect he has sold his allegiance for cash — that his opinion is what Mark Twain called a "corn pone opinion." But the supporters of subsidies are fine with that. He is on their side, and they won't call him names.

So it's fine with limited government advocates to take cash for a clunker, have taxpayers buy your failing car company or accept bailout for your bank -- as long as you say you oppose it? Are we to believe the real villains are the GM executives who were happy that the Obama administration stepped in to save thousands of jobs, and the heroes are those who didn't like it but took the money anyway? Well then, put the President down as Tea Party icon numero uno, because on more than one occasion he's expressed disdain for having to save GM's bacon.

There are, of course, more grateful recipients of lavish government farm payments.  Chris Clayton's reporting on the farm subsidy database for The Progressive Farmer news service included this jaw-dropping admission from an Arkansas rice and cotton farmer about the distortions these payments create:

"We wouldn't be planting rice without a direct payment," said Joe Mencer, a southeast Arkansas crop farmer. "We probably wouldn't be planting cotton without a direct payment. They wouldn't cash flow."

So before planting a single seed, some cotton and rice farmers must have a check in the mail from Uncle Sam? If this doesn't indicate a broken program, I don't know what does.

In the Des Moines Register's coverage, some historically vocal subsidy defenders acknowledged that they're having second thoughts when they look at the programs in the context of sound fiscal policy:

New rules that were supposed to cut off farm subsidies to rich landowners and farmers did little to stem the flow of payments to Iowa's largest corn and soybean operations.

Farm groups are likely to resist efforts to tighten eligibility rules further, but Congress could change the way growers and their landowners get paid. In the middle of the cross hairs are the $511 million in fixed annual payments that Iowa landowners and farmers got last year. One farm operation in Iowa, Sonstegard Family Farms, received $294,296 in such payments in 2009 for acreage in three counties.

Landowners and farmers get such payments even when they have bumper crops and commodity prices are strong.

"We're having a hard time defending that, to tell you the truth," said Craig Lang, president of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation. "In order to balance the deficit, we have to do our share."

The American Farm Bureau Federation, of course, is  still a full-throated supporter and energetic lobbyist for a status quo that keeps farm payments going to the largest and wealthiest farms in America. Did Craig Lang just go rogue, or is there a movement afoot in the Farm Bureau's state groups to alter the mother ship's stance? Remember, the North Dakota farm bureau voted to abolish farm subsidies. And this doesn't come from a state with little or no subsidy money flowing in, such as Nevada. Iowa ranks second in total farm payments, North Dakota ranks seventh.

At least give credit for consistency to California's second-largest farm subsidy recipient, Bowles Farming Company. When it was identified in a previous database release, farm manager Phillip Bowles was adamant that farm subsidies are a bad thing, and just as dedicated to keeping his taxpayer-funded bounty flowing. This is how Bowles embraced the Didier school of farm subsidy logic this time around in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Like most California cotton growers, Bowles grows the branded Supima and Acala cotton and contends the government payments give an unfair competitive advantage to inferior cotton and less-efficient competitors.

He said the database is misleading because the subsidies are built into the cotton price he receives at the mill. "That's the way the buyer of the cotton gets paid," he said. "I leave it to somebody else to explain why that's a good idea."

"The government has decided in their wisdom to encourage production of crops the market doesn't want," Bowles said. "It must make political sense because it certainly doesn't make economic sense."

But not all subsidy recipients have been eager to sound off. In the Lincoln Journal Star, reporter Art Hovey found that Nebraska farmers were not as talkative as their brethren in the South:

Early Journal Star efforts to get farmers to weigh in on the pluses and minuses of the new data Wednesday ran into problems of their own. The brisk pace of corn planting in early May may have been a factor and a reluctance to expound on the subject may have been another.

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