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Some Farmers Growing Rich on Government Crop Subsidies

Agriculture: A handful of large operators in California have reaped millions in U.S. payouts.

June 10, 2002|MARK ARAX and ERIC BAILEY | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

FRESNO — From its gated headquarters in the suburbs here, the Britz family runs a farming behemoth with arms that stretch across the vast middle of California. It is a multimillion-dollar empire that includes a petrochemical company, packinghouses, a cotton gin and tens of thousands of acres of irrigated cropland.

But the Britzes--whose houses sit amid country clubs and not cotton fields--also get a big helping hand from Uncle Sam. Their 14 separate farming entities have collected $4.6 million in federal crop subsidies over the last six years alone, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures.

This was the year Washington was supposed to shut off the valve of crop supports to rural California and the rest of America's farm belt, saving taxpayers billions of dollars while letting a free market balance supply and demand. But farmers have watched commodity prices fall to new lows in the face of increased foreign competition.

So Congress last month decided to perpetuate--and even enhance--a program of subsidies that was conceived in the Great Depression to help struggling family farmers but will continue to provide millions to big growers like the Britzes. Over the next decade, crop supports will cost American taxpayers an estimated $190 billion.

"The lion's share of the money in California goes to a handful of big dogs," said Ken Cook of the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based nonprofit organization that is trying to reform the farm subsidy system. "The dirty little secret is that 10% of the recipients in California get 67% of the money. And these are the guys who least need it."

As the noise of this spring's farm debate has died down, it has left behind the question of which farmers in California--big or small, successful or struggling--benefit most from crop subsidies that have totaled $2.8 billion since 1996.

Proponents say the money goes to farms of every size and helps keep food affordable. It doesn't line the pockets of farmers, they say, but is plowed right back into the soil. It is spent at local tractor dealers and hardware stores. It pays $7-an-hour jobs for laborers who come from Mexico.

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Most Crops Not Eligible

But only 9% of California's 74,000 farms have actually received subsidy payments and nearly two-thirds of the money since 1996--$1.8 billion--has gone to fewer than 3,500 farms. Most of the crops that fuel the state's $29-billion farm machine--grapes, peaches, plums, nectarines, strawberries, almonds, walnuts and vegetables of every hue--don't get a penny of aid. They aren't eligible.

Rather, the bulk of the money goes to support giant fields of cotton, rice, wheat and barley--crops that exist in surplus. Of the top 20 recipients in California, seven are big cotton growers and 11 are big rice growers. On average, they take in $596,000 in crop subsidies a year.

Some of these farmers can be found in coffee shops such as Pardini's in Fresno, where they bemoan falling crop prices and grumble about Washington poking its finger in their business, dictating to them about endangered species on their land and polluted water in their irrigation ponds.

"Is it hypocrisy to receive government payments and then bad-mouth the same government when it tries to enforce laws like the Endangered Species Act?" asked Marvin Meyers, a cotton and almond farmer who has received nearly $2 million in crop subsidies since 1996. "You betcha it's hypocritical."

Other farmers say it isn't hypocrisy but a matter of survival. Without government supports, they say, crops such as rice simply wouldn't be grown here. It costs $700 to $800 to produce an acre of California rice that fetches just $650 in the world market. "Right now, I don't see any way out of it," said Dave Womble, a Colusa County supervisor and subsidized farmer.

The towns that the payments help prop up--Buttonwillow, Huron, Corcoran, Arbuckle--are among the poorest in the state. Jobless rates range from 12% to 18%. Lavishing more payments on a handful of farmers won't ease the hard times, supporters of the new farm bill concede. Taking them away, though, could make things even worse.

"These aren't farmer subsidies. They are consumer subsidies," said David Unruh of the Farm Service Agency in Kings County, the arm of the USDA that hands out subsidy checks. "The farmer is the vehicle through which the government ensures an adequate supply of reasonably priced food and fiber. It extends to all Americans."

The Environmental Working Group believes that such talk is just a rationalization for a policy that benefits the few. The group has posted on the Internet a county-by-county breakdown of six years of payments, showing hundreds of thousands of dollars going to people who look nothing like struggling farmers.

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