Moving on Up- To the Senate Side

And after a brief break, we move onto the Senate side of the farm bill. There is a general consensus that achieving serious reform of the farm bill will be much easier in the Senate than the House. Being general skeptics, we have our doubts, especially when it comes to the always-important issue of payment limits. While Senate Ag Committee chair Tom Harkin (D-IA) has been consistently in favor of substantially revamping farm programs and strengthening many different titles of the farm bill- usually those favored by “reformers”- there are still many interests and Senators with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

And one voice opposing farm program reform emanates from California, that supposed hotbed of liberal, progressive politics. When we discuss payment limitations opponents, there’s a reason that we usually refer to “Southern opposition- plus California”. In the San Francisco Chronicle (which has had some excellent farm bill coverage, by the way), Senator Barbara Boxer of California had some interesting comments about payment limits last week:

Sen. Barbara Boxer said Wednesday she would not support a $250,000 limit on farmers receiving federal crop subsidies, saying it would be a disaster for the state's cotton and rice growers.

"It's not an easy issue for California," Boxer said. "We have our rice people and we have our cotton people."

“Our rice people and our cotton people.” Really. In the same article, a response:

Scott Faber, farm policy campaign director for Environmental Defense, said only "11 farmers" collected more than $250,000 in 2005, and one those "farmers" was the Nature Conservancy, so lower payment limits would have little effect on California farmers.

As we’ve noted many times, we favor real payment limitations and investing the savings into rural development programs that can create a future for rural people- and certainly be a wiser use of our dollars than multi-million dollar subsidy checks for cotton and rice. And we’ve done a little research on this before, but not on California.

Fortunately, research guru Jon Bailey is up to the task. Here’s what he found, using Environmental Working Group data, and federal funds data provided by the excellent Southern Rural Development Initiative:

98 farm businesses received federal payments of $250,000 or more in 2005, 288 in 2004 and 100 in 2003 (Source: Environmental Working Group; includes all forms of payments)

11 beneficiaries received federal payments of $250,000 or more in 2005, 172 in 2004 and 3 in 2003 (Source-EWG- As noted above, in 2005 one of those beneficiaries was the Nature Conservancy, with almost all conservation payments)

Using the same basic analysis for California that we did for the earlier rural development report (SRDI data) …

Top 20 California farm program recipients 2003-05 = $45,936,617 (mostly from cotton, a couple of businesses mostly from rice) – average of $2,296,830/business

Non-metro counties with 10% or more poverty levels = $26,545,700 in rural development grant funding (2001-03 community resources function – business development, infrastructure, housing) – 19 counties with 691,312 (2000 Census population) – $38.40 per capita

U.S. Census Bureau rural typology counties = $21,086,552 in RD grant funding (ditto) – 13 counties with 277,081 population -- $76.10 per capita

This is a rough sketch, but consistent with what we found in earlier report.

So in 3 years the feds spend $45.9 million on farm program checks for 20 recipients. And in 3 years they spend $21 million investing in the future of 13 rural counties- home to 277,000 people.

And those “rice people and cotton people” that Boxer cites as her reason to oppose a $250,000 payment limit? Well, in 2005, there were eleven of them. Eleven. And when we toss in farm businesses as well, we see another 98. So Senator Boxer is well and truly worried about the fate of 109 mega-farmers and mega-farm businesses. And I’m willing to bet that some of those farmers and farm businesses are the same people. They are her reason to oppose payment limits, and they're the reason "It's not an easy issue for California". It doesn't seem all that difficult to us.

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