When it comes to sending out federal farm subsidy checks, Seattle is about the last place one would think they'd get cashed. Wrong. Uncle Sam sends $2 million a year to city residents there -- $2 million that is supposed to support farmers and low-priced food.
That's according to U.S. Department of Agriculture farm subsidy statistics. Some say federal subsidies are a pillar of U.S. agricultural independence; others see them as a corporate welfare program run amok.
"We think current policy has badly failed almost everyone in agriculture but the very largest producers of a few favored crops," states the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C.-based group that specializes in computer-assisted environmental research.
The EWG has compiled thousands of records to show who gets what when it comes to farm subsidies. EWG says the idea is to spot flaws in the system, expose them to the public and, ultimately, create a subsidy system that better supports family farmers instead of absentee landowners and corporate farms.
Federal farm subsidies are annual payments to qualifying farmers, shoring up land conservation efforts and commodity prices. Subsidies primarily support cereal cops, like wheat, barley and corn, plus rice, soybeans and cotton. The Library of Congress' Congressional Research Service calls subsidies the 80-year-old "heart of U.S. farm policy." About one-third of U.S. farmers receive some sort of federal check, according to the USDA data gathered by EWG. Some states, like Wisconsin, North Dakota and Montana, have more than half their farmers receiving checks. In Washington, the number is about 20 percent, or 5,700 farms; in Idaho, 35 percent are helped, representing 7,800 farms.
The EWG-compiled database covers payments between 1996 and 2000. In that period, the number of Washington recipients remained almost the same, while annual subsidy payments doubled, to $353 million.
Spokane County farms won $53.7 million in the five-year period. The recipient of the greatest amount of aid in Spokane County is the Spokane Hutterian Brethren, a group of communal Christians. The group raked in about $536,000, mostly in wheat and barley supports, not counting money for conservation measures. Across the border in Kootenai County, Allen Lewis (a Rockford, Wash., resident) received $331,000 for his agricultural operations, mostly wheat-farming, over five years.
Perhaps most interesting, though, are the unex-pected subsidy recipients. Hundreds of Northwest city slickers round up federal subsidy payments, for example. Nearly 1,000 Seattle residents -- apparently absentee landowners -- collect farm subsidies to the tune of $2 million every year, according to the USDA data. Portlanders rake in almost $3 million a year.
By far the largest federal subsidy recipient in Washington is the state's Department of Natural Resources, which won $5.3 million over five years.
"It's an eyebrow-raiser," concedes Paul Penhallegon, DNR's leasing program manager. DNR makes a pile of money from the subsidy program, but, says Penhallegon, it only keeps 23 to 30 percent of the subsidy money sent for its holdings. The bulk of the money goes to the farmers who have leased hundreds of DNR parcels. The parcels are mostly trust lands deeded to the state and held in perpetuity by Washington's government, according to Penhallegon.
"We're in the trust business, just like a bank," he says. "Both the landlord and the sharecropper have to make a decent return on their property... We're just a landlord collecting our share of the rent."
Besides illuminating interesting aspects of the federal farm subsidy system, the Environmental Working Group's basic premise is that the subsidy system should be restructured. Money should go where it's most needed, the group argues. That means, among other areas of need, it should be used to fund conservation programs (the government turns away three of every four people who seek conservation assistance).
The bottom line for EWG is that current subsidies are "wasteful because they bypass two-thirds of all U.S. farmers and steer payments largely into the hands of the wealthiest corporate farms -- who then use their money to buy up smaller, neighboring family operators."
That's true, says Washington State University Extension Service agent John Fouts -- but, he adds, it's perhaps not the whole truth. Corporate farms and absentee landowners get the most dollars, he says, "but those entities are the lion's share of production. Some people feel the federal support should go where the largest share of production is. Others feel it should go to the smaller producers and help them."
Subsidies alone aren't driving out family farms, Fouts says. "The main thing that has made the larger farms grow are the basic facts of any economy of scale: The larger they are, the more efficient they can be in anything."
While the structuring of subsidies is more complicated than perhaps EWG suggests, Fouts says there is one troubling side effect of subsidy payments: They create dependence. Farmers bred with the rugged, independent mythology of the American West hate the idea, but given cheap labor overseas, "a lot of them are forced to be dependent" on the payments to remain competitive, Fouts says.
Or, as DNR's Penhallegon contends, "The bigger question is, do we as a people value homegrown produce? If you don't, you ship the production to China, Argentina, Pakistan -- big countries, open land, cheap labor."