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Bill's critics say it helps big producers

May 28, 2002|BY ANDREA ROWLAND

andrear@herald-mail.com

The 2002 farm bill has been criticized for the unprecedented amount of money it gives the nation's largest farmers.

Critics say giving the bulk of the money to the smallest percentage of producers will endanger the livelihood of small farmers.

The new farm bill "may well sound the death knell for small and mid-sized family farms and independent livestock producers," according to a May 13 press release from Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley.

Several agriculture officials and farmers in the Tri-State area agreed that the largest producers tend to reap the greatest financial rewards from federal subsidies. But they said the new farm bill, though far from perfect, boasts provisions that will help sustain the family farmer's way of life.

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"It's always been a scary thing when the corporate farm replaces the small family farm," Williamsport dairy farmer Greg Wiles said.

It's tough for family farmers to compete with growers at least 10 times their size, growers who can take advantage of government subsidies and such discounts as price breaks for bulk herd feed orders, Wiles said.

The new farm bill "seems like it might help protect the small individual farmer," he said.

The bill - the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 - will add much-needed cash flow to dairy farmers in times of low milk prices. That will especially benefit small farmers due to a cap on the amount of milk that will be subsidized, said Don Schwartz, Maryland Cooperative Extension agent for Washington County.

The bill authorizes billions of dollars for conservation programs. Those funds are available to all farmers, Schwartz said.

"It's not going to hurt small farmers at all," he said.

The bill will likely result in a significant increase in subsidy payments - especially for conservation - and the number of growers who will qualify for financial assistance, said Steve Weber, president of the Maryland Farm Bureau.

More than 2,000 farmers in the Tri-State area have taken advantage of federal subsidies over the past five years, according to information from the Environmental Working Group. The nonprofit environmental research organization based in Washington compiled a farm subsidy database from millions of records representing each payment made from county USDA offices to every recipient during the past five years.

According to the organization's statistics, USDA subsidies paid to Tri-State area producers from 1996 to 2001 included:

-- Nearly $8.2 million for 414 farmers in Washington County.

-- More than $21 million to 846 farmers in Franklin County, Pa.

-- About $5.5 million to 443 farmers in Fulton County, Pa.

-- More than $4.3 million to 264 farmers in Berkeley County, W.Va.

-- About $580,000 to 68 farmers in Morgan County, W.Va.

Those figures will jump when the 2002 farm bill kicks in, agriculture officials said.

The federal government - which has invested about $90 billion in agricultural programs during the past five years - will funnel a disproportionate amount of taxpayers' money to the agribusinesses that threaten family farms, critics say.

Giving more federal money to large-scale farms "only will help growers to grow bigger, gobble up more farmland and inflate land rental rates - all of which makes it harder for beginning farmers to get started," Grassley said.

Ten percent of the biggest subsidized crop producers absorbed two-thirds of all subsidies between 1996 and 2001, according to EWG information.

Such Fortune 500 companies as Chevron, Caterpillar and International Paper received hundreds of thousands of dollars in government subsidies. International Paper received an average subsidy payment of $375, 393 from 1996 through 2000, according to EWG statistics.

The average payment to the bottom 80 percent of all farm subsidy recipients nationwide is about $5,800, according to statistics.

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