Monday, September 10, 2001
U.S. subsidies fertilize Ky. farms
Farmers got $328M last year
By Charles Wolfe
The Associated Press
FRANKFORT Kentucky's farm economy was buoyed by Uncle Sam last year.
The federal government made direct farm payments totaling nearly $328 million, much of it as income subsidies to producers of corn, wheat and soybeans, espe cially in western Kentucky.
The money was spread among 75,700 recipients, not all of whom were farmers. The list included payments based on dozens of tracts of cropland that actually were owned by cities, counties, school boards, industrial authorities, public and private colleges, churches, cemetery companies, golf courses, hunting clubs and state agencies most receiving modest, even negligible amounts.
Big payments were made to a relative few. Former Gov. Wallace Wilkinson, before he slid into bankruptcy, was paid $82,351. Payments included subsidies for corn and wheat on his farms in Mercer County.
But Mr. Wilkinson ranked only 320th among individual recipients. Fourteen people received $200,000 or more, as did 50 farm corporations, trusts and other business operations. More than 67,000 people 93 percent of all individual recipients got less than $10,000. Of that group, 7,470 got less than $100, and 751 got less than $10.
More money went into grain-growing Christian County than any other county a bit more than $19 million. Letcher County got the least $612.
Christian and nine other western counties Graves, Logan, Henderson, Union, Daviess, Todd, Calloway, Hickman and McLean got nearly $125 million, which was more than a third of the money. The eight counties of the Jackson Purchase took in a combined $57.5 million.
The figures were drawn from records of U.S. Department of Agriculture payments mailed in the last federal fiscal year Oct. 1, 1999 through Sept. 30, 2000. The Associated Press obtained the database of the department's Farm Services Agency under the Freedom of Information Act. The records did not account for overpayments that later were refunded. But the FSA said refunds in previous years were minimal, never topping 5 percent of all subsidies.
In addition to crop-price subsidies, payments included drought relief and money under a conservation program in which landowners are paid to take marginal cropland out of production for the sake of erosion control, among other purposes.
The conservation program was worth $40,574 to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources, which has acquired and set aside thousands of acres for wildlife habitat.
(Tobacco and livestock, two pillars of the Kentucky farm economy, were not included in the records because they are not subsidized.)
The USDA, which reports farm income by calendar year, not fiscal year, said Kentucky's farm income was just under $1.1 billion in 1999. A figure for 2000 is to be released this month. Nationally, subsidies accounted for almost half of all farm income.
Could full-time farmers make a profit otherwise? No way in the world, said Lowell D. Calender, who topped the list of individual recipients with $237,852 for his farm at Ledbetter in Livingston County.
I could not afford to grow one acre of row crops without those payments, Mr. Calender said in a telephone interview.
Mr. Calender said his crops include corn and soybeans. He declined to give his farm's acreage. But he said he gladly made use of loan deficiency payments subsidies a farmer can apply for when the market price for a crop falls below a level set by the government.
Those payments averaged $1 per bushel on soybeans and 42 cents per bushel on corn last winter, he said. Without that, we'd have been on the losing side, he said.
In Christian County, where Philip Garnett's 3,700-acre farm includes 1,500 acres of corn and 1,000 acres of wheat, profits would be off drastically but for USDA payments totaling $198,810, Mr. Garnett said.
It would be a very small profit. I'd probably have to change a lot of things. I've got a couple of hired men; I'd have to lay them off, Mr. Garnett said from Hopkinsville. If you sell corn below production costs, it gets pretty tough.
Pete Cashel, president of the advocacy group Community Farm Alliance, got considerably less money $409 for his Terrapin Hill Farm, a small organic operation in Mercer County. But he was not unsympathetic to the big operators and the idea of subsidies.
Sometimes farmers will be encouraged to grow something a lot of soybeans or something then there's too much soybeans on the market and the price goes down, Mr. Cashel said.
Environmental Working Group, an organization in Washington, D.C., that maintains an extensive database of federal agriculture records, says more money should go into conservation and that too much of the money goes to the biggest landowners.
It's all tied to how much land you own, said Kenneth Cook, the organization's president and chief executive officer.
We are pro-subsidy, Mr. Cook said. We definitely feel we need support going to rural areas and farms. Our arguments tend to come in with how it's spent and who gets it.
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U.S. subsidies fertilize Ky. farms