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Independent Texans Shun Farm Subsidies

June 05, 1994|ROBERT GREENE | ASSOCIATED PRESS

McGREGOR, Tex. — Ray L. Stewart figures he does well enough, thank you, without a government check for the corn and wheat he grows on more than 3,000 acres.

"If I can't make more money out of a block of land than what the Yankee government can pay me for it, I need to find me something else to do," said Stewart, 64, waiting for a black sky to drop some rain.

More than sheer cussedness keeps Stewart away from federal support payments that cost $16 billion last year. By accident and design, farm programs have become less attractive for many growers.

Farm and budget bills since 1985 have nudged farmers toward the market and away from the government for guidance in their planting decisions.

Tight money and a Congress that is less sympathetic to agriculture will probably produce a 1995 farm bill with even fewer dollars to go around.

Change is at work in McLennan County. Here, enamel-green expanses of early corn and milo compete with the soft coral, lavender, pink and yellow stipple of bordering wildflowers for the eye's attention.

Growers here like to plant acres, not idle them. They'll lease any small patch as long as it's big enough for a cultivator or combine to do its work. Step three feet off a driveway, and you can be up to your knees in oats.

"I always figured that in a normal year, you can make more money by farming land than by laying it out," said Stewart, using the farmer term for idling land in exchange for government benefits.

Growers get most government help from deficiency payments. Payments make up the difference between a target price set by Congress and the market price.

In years when surpluses are expected, farmers are told to limit how many acres they can plant in a "program crop" like corn, wheat or grain sorghum, also called milo.

An extra 15% of the land gets knocked out of payments for a budget-saving program called flex. Flex also encourages farmers to try other crops on those acres.

No acres are being idled this year because of shortages caused by the 1993 floods in the Midwest and drought in the Southeast. But growers here have other problems that will keep county participation in the corn program close to 50%, compared with a national average of closer to 80%.

Growers get payments for historical yields, not real production. The 1985 farm bill froze those yields at levels from a decade ago.

Growers everywhere have gotten better at producing corn. That's especially true in McLennan County, where farmers have switched in a big way from cotton and milo to corn.

Program yields are down near 35 bushels an acre, while farmers can reap 85 to 157 bushels, said Henry A. Hahn, who farms in nearby Levi with his brother, Robert.

"We make a good crop and then we get penalized for it," said Henry, 39, using the break between corn planting and wheat harvesting to go after some yellow catfish. Like Stewart, the Hahns farm several thousand acres, much on leased or rented land.

The stigma of leasing or renting has disappeared for farmers, especially here. There are farm widows who don't take up the business, or doctors, lawyers and investors with land to spare.

The result is multiple owners and multiple paperwork, which helps keep Jeff Davis, 54, of Waco, out of the programs. Davis farms about 4,000 acres of corn, wheat, milo and soybeans--a huge operation by any standards.

But he rents fields of anywhere from two acres to 135 from about three dozen landlords.

"They don't like to see me coming down there, because I've got more landlords than anybody in the county," said Davis.

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