Archive for Sunday, April 10, 2005

Way of life threatened

D.C. may deal big blow to farmers’ safety net

April 10, 2005


A life spent farming, John Wise says, has been like riding a roller coaster.

"Up and down," said Wise, who has been growing corn, soybeans and wheat in and around Douglas County since 1956. "Some years have been pretty good, some years pretty bleak. Overall, not too bad a shape."

Wise and other area farmers say the lean years -- when rain wouldn't fall or when prices did -- were survivable for one main reason: federal farm subsidies.

"That's been a safety net," Wise said.

Kansas farmers have received more than $7 billion in federal payments since 1995, ranking sixth in the nation -- and 2003's payments of $807 million amounted to roughly $300 for every man, woman and child in the state.

Now, the Bush administration and Congress are considering big cuts to the program, as much as $5.7 billion nationally over the next decade as the federal government tries to reduce deficit spending.

"The impact will be into the millions of dollars across the whole state," said Steve Baccus, president of Kansas Farm Bureau.

The prospect of such cuts has Wise, 76, despairing about the future of farmers like himself.

"It's just going to be a lot of people who aren't going to be able to make it," he said. "It's going to be very difficult if these cuts take place."

Heavy reliance

Studies by the Environmental Working Group, a nonpartisan watchdog organization, show how heavily Kansas relies on farm subsidies.

While just a third of farms nationwide received some form of payment in 2002, the organization says, 61 percent of Kansas farmers were subsidized.

And while Kansas accounted for 3 percent of the number of farms in the nation, the state represented 5.5 percent of all farms receiving federal payments.

Of the $7.3 billion state farmers received from 1995 to 2003, the bulk -- $2.9 billion -- subsidized wheat growth. Corn and sorghum growers in Kansas received $1.1 billion each during that time.

Douglas County farmers say that sounds like a lot of money, but the low price of commodities at market means subsidies are necessary to keep food production running.

"The way the markets are, (without subsidies) we'd all be broke," said Keith Knabe, who grows corn, soybeans and winter wheat near Eudora.

Baccus, of the Kansas Farm Bureau, said taxpayers received a perk in return for subsidies: Americans pay a smaller portion of their income on food than just about anybody in the world.

"It's a pretty good deal for the American consumer," he said.

What gets cut?

President Bush proposed cuts of $5.7 billion from agricultural programs over the next 10 years as part of a deficit reduction package. The House Budget Committee set the figure at $5.3 billion, while its Senate counterpart said $2.8 billion should be trimmed.

"It'll probably be somewhere in between," said Baccus, who raises wheat, corn and other grains on his farm in Ottawa County.

Exactly how much will be cut and from which programs remain to be determined this summer. Congressional leaders must settle on a target, which can be met in many ways, including by cutting food stamps.

Baccus said he didn't have a problem with Congress trying to cut spending. The problem, he said, is that farmers are bearing a bigger share of the budget-cut burden.

"There are 13 spending bills," he said. The Department of Agriculture "is the only one taking cuts two years in a row. It's time for everybody else to come to the table to take their cuts."

Kansas ranked sixth among states that received farm payments from 1995 to 2003:
State Total subsidies
Texas $11.85 billion
Iowa $11.29 billion
Illinois $9.5 billion
Nebraska $7.55 billion
Minnesota $7.52 billion
Kansas $7.35 billion
Douglas County, however, ranks 94th among Kansas counties receiving subsidies, taking in $26.5 million from 1995 to 2003. The top counties:
County Total subsidies
Finney $167 million
Thomas $160 million
Gray $154 million
Reno $147 million
Sumner $143 million
Source: Environmental Working Group

Sen. Pat Roberts, a Kansas Republican who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee, agrees.

"If we work toward deficit reduction, then yes, agriculture should play its part," said Roberts' spokeswoman, Sarah Ross Little. "But it should not have to give up more than any other sector of the government."

'No control'

Rex Slankard has been farming south of Eudora since the early 1950s. He has seen the market price of corn and wheat barely budge since then, even as combines started selling for $200,000 a year and gasoline rose above $2 a gallon.

"The price of corn and wheat aren't any higher now than they were 50 years ago, and all the inputs have gone up," he said.

He fathered five children, including one boy. None of them went into farming -- the son went into insurance.

"There's more money in that than there is in farming," Slankard said. "I'm not big enough for him to get in with me when he got out of high school."

Wise thinks about young farmers when talking about subsidies. Without the payments, he said, the business is too volatile for most rational people to attempt.

"You have no control over markets, and you have no control over weather, and those are two big parts of the picture," Wise said. "The subsidies are a safety net that will encourage farmers, particularly young farmers, to take part in the industry."

But he also understands the need for the government to stop borrowing so much money to stay afloat.

"Don't ask me where they're going to get the money, because I don't know," Wise said. "Everybody wants their share."

-- Information from The Washington Post contributed to this report.

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