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I-Team 10 investigation: Subsidies a cash crop for farmers

Posted at: 05/07/2013 7:13 AM
Updated at: 05/07/2013 11:18 PM
By: Brett Davidsen

For years, farmers have been getting taxpayer subsidies in the way of direct payments from the government, even in years when they haven't suffered losses.

Critics call the subsidies a waste of money.

These subsidies put billions of your tax dollars a year in the pockets of farmers, regardless of crop prices or weather disasters.

In fact, you don't even have to be a farmer to get a check.

Steven Linder has been farming the land in Caledonia his entire life. He's seen the good times and the bad.

Steven Linder said, “It all depends on the weather, mother nature. I've seen the times when you wonder who you're going to pay first, bills and what have you. And then the bankers say, 'what do you think your problem was?'”

Even if there's no drought or flood though, Linder and many farmers nationwide can count on getting a subsidy check from the federal government. It comes in the form of taxpayer-funded direct payments to cash-crop farmers. It's been given to farmers annually since 1995 whether they need it or not. Watchdog groups like Taxpayers for Common Sense call it a form of corporate welfare.

Joel Sewell, Taxpayers for Common Sense, said, “The big knock on direct payments is that it's five billion dollars a year spent on agriculture, subsidizing farmers simply because they own land. They aren't paid out because you lose your crops or you have a bad year, they simply go to you because you own land."

According to a website that tracks farms subsides in Monroe County, farmers have received $8.4 million in direct payments since 1995. Other counties in western New York have received even more. The county getting the most in the entire state is Livingston County, where farmers received $15.8 million.

According to the data, Linder has received almost $370,000 in direct payments since 1995.

Linder said, “Well, it pays bills. We don't take the money and put it in a savings account or nothing. It pays bills. If we didn't get it, we'll survive."

Farm subsidies have been around since the 1930's, designed to keep farmers going during tough times. But the past few years, farm incomes overall have reached record highs, yet the checks keep coming.

I-Team 10 also discovered that you don't even need to be a farmer to get the subsidy. I-Team 10 found several names in the database of people in the Rochester area who have never planted a crop or driven a tractor. They own land and lease it to farmers, making them eligible as well.

Sen. Chuck Schumer said, "The direct payments are a waste of money, plain and simple."

As Congress considers a new farm bill, there is a growing chorus in Washington to end the subsidy.   But that had I-Team 10 wondering why it's taken so long for lawmakers to seriously consider eliminating them.

I-Team 10 Brett Davidsen said, “One of the criticisms that I've heard is that this is a case of Congress kicking the can down the road for so long. Why has it taken so long to take some action?”

Sen. Schumer said, “Well, the farm lobby is very powerful. I've been fighting them for 25 years with limited success."
After hearing that, I-Team 10 wanted to know how hard Schumer has been fighting them. I-Team 10 checked the congressional records and discovered he voted for the last farm bill in 2008, which continued those direct payments that Schumer called, “a waste of money”.
 
So I-Team 10 contacted his office for an explanation. An aide to Schumer defended the vote pointing out that he first voted for an amendment to close looopholes and put a cap on the payments.When that failed, the aide says Schumer ultimately supported the farm bill because it had other provisions that were beneficial to New York's dairy and specialty crop farmers.

But one lobbying group that does support doing away with direct payments is the New York Farm Bureau. Steve Ammerman is public affairs manager for the organization.

Steve Ammerman, New York Farm Bureau, said, “We've actually advocated for transition to crop insurance that is in the new farm bill because we think that would be better protection for our farmers in New York."

The Congressional Budget Office calculates that ending direct payments will save taxpayers $28 billion over the next decade.
   
Sewell said, "No one part of the budget got us to where we are and no one part of the budget is going to get us out of this hole. And so we need to find savings where we can, and direct payments are one of the easiest places to harvest savings."

Linder says he believes changes to the program are inevitable.

Linder said, “It's good the way it is, but they're going to overhaul it. I'm just saying, they're going to cut it. They're going to have to. The country's broke.”

Many in Congress believe that crop insurance will eventually be what replaces the direct payments. The insurance would be heavily subsidized by tax dollars, but would also require farmers to buy into the program.

A version of the farm bill has passed the Senate, but has not yet come up for a vote in the House. I-Team 10 will keep a close eye on the developments there and how they vote to spend your money.