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State's Big Growers Field Most U.S. Aid

September 09, 2003|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

In Corcoran, cotton is king. And in California, Corcoran is king of federal farm subsidies.

Some of the richest aid payments doled out by the U.S. government last year went to the largest agricultural concerns in the state, including Corcoran cotton growers Dublin Farms, Hansen Ranches and an operation called Gilkey Five. They collected $2.1 million, $1.8 million and $1.2 million, respectively, in U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidies, according to a report to be released today by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based nonprofit group.

No other community in the state boasted as many major recipients of aid last year as did Corcoran, a small town about 50 miles south of Fresno. Dublin and Hansen didn't return calls seeking comment, and Gilkey could not be reached. All three farms took in more aid last year than they did in 2001.

That wasn't the case for every subsidized farm in California, however. Overall, the amount of federal assistance that went to the Golden State in 2002 -- $652 million -- was about 25% less than the year before. It also was the lowest sum since 1998, when the figure was $355 million.

The payout to California farms last year represented a fraction of the $12.2 billion in total U.S. agricultural assistance.

Cotton giant J.G. Boswell Co. -- whose 150,000-plus acres rank as the biggest farming operation in America -- received $64,330 in 2002, compared with $6.8 million in 2001, according to the Environmental Working Group. Executives at Boswell, which is based in Pasadena but whose fields are located around Corcoran, couldn't be reached for comment.

The decline in total farm subsidies to California primarily was due to higher commodity prices, which resulted in smaller federal price-support payments. Cotton prices, for example, have risen from about 30 cents a pound in 2001 to the mid-50-cent range.

Still, the Environmental Working Group, which publishes an annual database of federal farm subsidies, says the system isn't equitable. The group contends that even shrinking payouts tend to favor large agricultural businesses, such as those in Corcoran, and do little to support the small farms the program was designed to protect.

The group pointed out that in California about 10% of the 20,000 farmers eligible for aid -- mostly those in the rice, cotton and dairy businesses -- received 60% of the subsidy money last year. The rest of the aid, or about $264 million, was divvied up among thousands of mostly small farmers.

Bill Crivelli, who farms 800 acres in Dos Palos in Merced County, was one of them.

He collected about $15,000 from the USDA to help him grow cotton. He predicts his crop will be small this year and that he'll lose money on his cotton even with the federal money. But he expects to make up the losses on 200 acres of tomatoes -- which like most California-grown fruits and vegetables aren't eligible for subsidies.

"I would like to plant just tomatoes, but it is too risky," Crivelli said. "They are far more sensitive to the weather."

Like other farmers in the Central Valley, he grows cotton "to survive," he said, because it is "stable and lets me take a gamble on the other things."

America started the farm aid program during the Great Depression as a way to help struggling family farmers survive the economic downturn. Subsidies, which are expected to cost U.S. taxpayers about $180 billion over the next decade, have long been a hot-button issue in Washington and in the rural areas that depend on the payments.

Subsidies are an international trade issue as well. The financial support that farmers in wealthy industrial nations receive has drawn the ire of poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America, and is expected to be a major topic at this week's meeting of the World Trade Organization in Cancun, Mexico.

Farmers in the European Union collect about $60 billion annually in aid, and Japan pays out some $15 billion a year. In fact, rich countries' total farm subsidies are greater than Africa's gross domestic product, World Bank President James Wolfensohn said recently.

Daniel Sumner, an agricultural economics professor at UC Davis, said that subsidy money could trickle down to smaller family farms and into local communities in California. Nonetheless, he maintains that there is little reason to continue such aid.

"It really has become a political question rather than an economic one," he said.

The largest recipient of farm aid in California wasn't an individual farming operation but the 900-member Farmers' Rice Cooperative. It topped the list, taking in $27.9 million. The Sacramento-based co-op, which processes and markets about a quarter of the rice grown in California, ranked third nationally, behind two other rice concerns.

The co-op has received $108 million in federal aid over the last eight years. Officials of the cooperative did not return calls.

The USDA's next largest payment in California, $2.1 million, went to Dublin Farms. Another major cotton concern, Wolfsen Land & Cattle Co. in Los Banos, was third with $2.0 million.

All told, farmers in only four states collected more in subsidies than California last year.

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