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Farm Subsidies Remain a Point of Contention

By Mychel Matthews, The Times-News, Twin Falls, Idaho
McClatchy-Tribune Information Services

Feb. 02--TWIN FALLS -- Nothing says "controversy" like farm subsidies.

The original intent of the farm subsidy program was to provide economic stability to farmers during the Great Depression and to ensure an affordable domestic food supply for Americans.

But in recent years, high crop prices have clouded some perspectives on farm subsidies.

Critics are now calling the subsidies -- which are part of the Food, Conservation, and Energy Act -- better known as the farm bill -- "wasteful" amid booming agricultural production and spiking revenue.

The farm bill Conference Report, which passed the House last week and will soon go before the Senate, fell short of the subsidy reform some groups are now demanding.

"At a time of record farm income, the agriculture committees once again chose to increase unlimited subsidies to the most profitable and financially secure farm businesses at the expense of hungry children and the environment," said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, while taking note of the bill's cuts to food stamps.

Laird Noh, a Twin Falls sheep rancher and 24-year veteran of the state Senate, said some of the criticism aimed at subsidies reveals "a naive view of what kind of efficiencies are needed to farm today."

Those efficiencies come at huge production costs, he said.

"There is no question that, for crop farmers, we've had several of the best price years we have ever had," said Noh. "We've also had some beef, pork and lamb prices that were high."

But that's not always the case, he said. Subsidies have kept many farmers from going under during lean years.

"We could have a few good years, then we could have some catastrophic loss," Noh said.

Mind-numbing Statistics

According to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures, the U.S. government doled out $256 billion in farm subsidies from commodity, crop insurance, and disaster programs and $39 billion in conservation payments between 1995 and 2012.

Still, most of the subsidies today go to the farmers who least need the money, critics say.

The biggest complaint is over what critics call "subsidy millionaires." Twenty-six people nationwide each receive at least $1 million per year in farm subsidies, according to the USDA data bank.

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However, "that's not the typical Idaho farmer," said Ron Abbott, farm programs chief at the state Farm Service Agency's (FSA) office in Boise.

Each state's FSA administers USDA farm programs.

Idaho has no subsidy millionaires, the data show. The state ranks 27th in subsidies paid between 1995 and 2012.

"Subsidy numbers sound huge," Abbot said. "But they are miniscule compared to the entire farm bill."

Chump Change

Idaho farmers received $3.16 billion in subsidies between 1995 and 2012: $1.7 billion in commodity subsidies, $421 million in crop insurance subsidies, $745 million in conservation subsidies and $253 million in disaster subsidies.

Twin Falls County subsidy payments look like chump change compared with other areas of the nation.

Over the past 18 years, Twin Falls County farms received $75.2 million. Eighty percent of those farms received annually an average of $549 a year, while the top 10 percent of the farms averaged a yearly payment of $16,824.

The total amount of farm subsidies paid in 2012 in the county was $3.5 million. Compare that total with $11.7 million paid that year to Kossuth County, Iowa, farmers. Those same farmers in 2005 received $51.8 million.

But basing the subsidy distribution on the number of subsidy recipients -- rather than the number of acres farmed by those recipients -- is misleading, Abbot said.

"There's no way of knowing how many acres each recipient farms," he said. "You've got to have all the facts when making statements regarding subsidies."

Farm supports cost Americans just 2 cents per meal and account for less than one-quarter of 1 percent of the federal budget, according to Farm Policy Facts, a non-profit organization whose mission is to defend the nation's farmers and the farm bill.

The top states to receive farm subsidies in the past 18 years are Iowa, $16.4 billion; Texas, $15.6 billion; Illinois, $14.8 billion.

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Local Recipients

Farmer and dairyman Darrell Funk and his wife, Pat, of Murtaugh -- large farmers by Idaho standards -- received payments totaling nearly $3 million over the past 18 years. Hansen'sSouthside Farms received $1.9 million and Twin Falls farmers W.T. Williams Inc., Robert Meyers and Griff Farms received more than $1 million each.

If the conference report passes the Senate as expected, farm subsidies are safe for now.

U.S. Reps. Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson, both Idaho Republicans, voted for the conference report.

"This year's farm bill is an improvement over the status quo, and while I would have preferred to see deeper cuts in spending, it gets us closer to where we need to be," Labrador said following last week's vote.

Meanwhile, the controversy will continue.

The subsidy program "is awfully detailed, and reflects the politics of the country," said Noh.

___

(c)2014 The Times-News (Twin Falls, Idaho)

Visit The Times-News (Twin Falls, Idaho) at magicvalley.com

Distributed by MCT Information Services

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