Farmers’ federal aid link a complex matter

How’s a farmer to live with tax-paying neighbors under federal attempts to ensure cheap and abundant food-even during disastrous weather-while using the same food in foreign policy?

Perhaps the writers should have explained you need to receive more money than you spend in a farm business to take some home, even if federal subsidies help.

At least it would be nice to make more investing in your own farm labor than you could putting the same money in a bank passbook account.

Apparently, some Kansas newspapers played into the political agenda of an environmental group in the last month when they published the names of larger agricultural producers with the amounts of government payments they received.

At least that’s the analysis Bill Harmon shares with his state director Bill Fuller, Manhattan, and most of his fellow county directors. Harmon is the director for Marion County Farm Services Agency of the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, the local representative for figuring acreage allotments, federal payments and conservation help.

It’s not that the newspapers did anything wrong, because farm subsidies are public information. But they would have been more responsible to their neighbors who constitute a struggling but basic part of the state and national economies had they taken time to note the money received covered more than one year and several types of payments, their farm critics said.

The farm-payment information distributed was on the Internet Web site of a group called the Environmental Working Group. It included lists such as the top 20 producers and the amounts they received for every state and county of the United States as well as the general data of subsidies for each area.

Harmon said: “Our director’s thoughts about EWG, which I would be in agreement with, are that it is a group with a well-funded database. The group has a legitimate right to the information it shares, but it does it in a slanted and misguided way.

Why do they do it?

“Their current mission is to cause taxpayer unrest,” Harmon said. “They want to direct federal dollars that go to traditional farm support into environmental programs. They want to use taxpayer dissatisfaction to do this.

“This is a federal entitlement program,” he added. “The receipts are there for the people to work to receive them legally. The way the program is structured, the bigger the acres farmed, the bigger the payments received. We can’t change that.”

The publication of subsidies with names appeared to promote division between farmers and the consuming public.

One annoyed producer whose name was published said, “I wish they’d also publish the names of the top 20 taxpayers in Marion County, and how much they pay.”

EWG said it assembled its farm subsidy database because it wants farmers’ incomes supported while helping them receive more conservation funds for programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program that paid to convert crop land into grasslands and woods, and the Wetlands Reserve.

EWG contends that “current policy has badly failed almost everyone in agriculture but the very largest producers of a few favored crops.”

The group contended that “tens of thousands of farmers and ranchers” are turned down for underfunded conservation programs.

EWG said that before another federal farm bill is enacted by Congress, taxpayers should have better information about how funds were invested in the “Freedom to Farm” act.

Rickey Roberts, Marion County extension agricultural agent, said newspapers publishing the receipts should have pointed out they covered five years, from 1996 through 2000.

Examination of records for individual producers showed payments received for as many as nearly 20 items annually. But this reflects how complex agribusiness has become more than how much “free money” a farmer might be receiving from Uncle Sam.

The record for one farmer showed money received for flexibility contracts on corn, oats, sorghum and wheat; market-loss assistance for the same four crops; loan deficiency payments on corn, sorghum, soybeans and wheat; deficiency payments for corn, sorghum and wheat; and oilseed program payment for soybeans.

Farmers said government programs have become so complex that different FSA employees within the same office might interpret their parameters differently.

Roberts provided information from the Kansas State University Farm Management Handbook guide that is used for farm costs and returns projections. He said the actual expenses vary considerably due to types and amounts of fertilizer and chemicals applied, the machinery used and the cost of land.

On the K-State examples, costs increase with yields as well as the returns. For instance, on corn, the variable cost per acre-including expenses for labor, seed, herbicide, insecticide, fertilizer and lime, fuel and oil, machinery and equipment repairs, crop insurance, drying, miscellaneous and the interest for half the costs-was $154.43 for a 58-bushel yield, $164.63 for 74-bushel and $174.39 for 90-bushel.

Added to this were the fixed costs per acre, including real estate taxes, interest on land, machinery depreciation, machinery interest and machinery insurance totaling $67.51 for 58 bushels, $75.83 for 74 bushels and $84.15 for 90 bushels.

The returns at $2.04 a bushel included a $9.66 subsidy for 58-bushels corn, making a total return of $127.98, $10.50 subsidy for 74-bushels totaling $161.46 and $11.34 subsidy for 90 bushels totalling $194.94.

The net return on investment was -5.07 percent at 58 bushels, -1.75 percent at 74 bushels and 0.77 percent at 90 bushels.

For wheat, the figures are a government payment of $9.66 and return on investment of 2.76 percent on 35-bushel wheat, $10.50 payment and 4.43 percent return on 43-bushel wheat, $11.34 payment and 5.65 percent return on 51-bushel wheat.

Figures were based on a price of $3.06 per bushel.

For milo, the figures were $9.66 payment and -0.07 return on 57-bushel milo, $10.50 payment and -0.24 percent return on 68-bushel milo, and $11.34 payment and 1.09 percent return on 79-bushel milo.

Figures were based on a price of $1.79 a bushel.

For soybeans, the figures were $9.66 payment and minus 1.08 percent return for 21-bushel beans, $10.50 payment and 2.88 percent return for 28-bushel beans, and $11.34 and 5.58 percent return for 35-bushel beans.

Even plugging in a different set of variables and other possible subsidies, Roberts said the figures illustrate that nobody’s getting wealthy from subsidies.

To the contrary, even with subsidies, farmers may lose money.

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