Columbia - In 2004, the year Boone County residents averaged $54,000 in income, Harold Eugene Sandner made more than twice that amount — in farm subsidies.
Sandner, a Rocheport-area farmer, received about $284,000 from the federal government between 2003 and 2005, with nearly $114,000 coming in during 2004.
Top 10 Boone County farms receiving subsidies 2003-051. S&S Farms, Rocheport, $400,980 Harold Eugene Sandner, $200,490 Darrell K. Seltsam Trust, $200,490 2. Flatt Farms, Centralia, $336,102 Ronald M. Flatt, $168,051 Laverne M. Flatt, $168,051 3. Seltsam Family LLLP, Columbia $258,071 Darrell K. Seltsam Trust, $92,905 Frances Seltsam Trust, $90,325 Robert Seltsam, $20,646 Sarah Seltsam, $18,065 Rory Seltsam, $18,065 Donald L. Seltsam Trust No. 1, $15,484 Catherine Seltsam, $2,581 4. Kuhler Farms, Columbia, $190,377 Stephen K. Kuhler, $141,237 Loraine Kuhler, $24,570 Joseph W. Kuhler Jr., $24,570 5. Riverside Farms, Hartsburg $182,163 Wayne Hilgedick, $118,407 Rick Hilgedick, $31,878 Terry Hilgedick, $31,878 6. Double D Seed, Hallsville, $170,342 Ruth Douglas, $85,171 Larry Douglas, $85,171 7. Evergreen Sod, Rocheport, $156,673 Harold Eugene Sandner, $78,336 Darrell K. Seltsam Trust, $78,336 8. Bullard Seed Company, Ashland, $142,704 Joel Bullard, $71,352 Janet Bullard, $71,352 9. Beckmeyer Farms Inc., Hartsburg, $127,124 Orion Beckmeyer, $31,781 Glen Beckmeyer, $31,781 Linda Beckmeyer, $31,781 Barbara Beckmeyer, $31,781 10. Tom Bass Farms Inc., Columbia, $80,884 Tom Bass, $80,884
Sandner is second highest on the list of 834 individuals in Boone County who received farm subsidies between 2003 and 2005. His benefits constitute 3 percent of the $6.67 million Boone County farmers received during those years.
Occupying the No. 1 spot is his partner, Darrell Seltsam, with whom Sandner shares three farm businesses.
Combined, they received more than 7 percent of all Boone County farm subsidy benefits.
Ken Cook, president of a Washington-based lobby group called the Environmental Working Group that publishes data on topics including toxic ingredients in cosmetics and pesticides in produce, has been tracking statistics on farm subsidies since 1993. His goal was to put a dollar amount to every name. This year, the group released a database that includes 1.5 million names, the most complete and transparent record of farm subsidies to date.
Through the Freedom of Information Act, the group was able to add 385,000 individuals to its original list compiled in 2003. The database has received more than a million hits on the Web since its launch in mid-June.
“I hope this information will help make the case for tightening policy,” Cook said. “The system needs reform, and shining some light on it is the best way to get discussion about it.”
The uneven distribution of government subsidies — the top 1 percent on Boone County’s list received 23 percent of total subsidy dollars — is not a local phenomenon. Nationally, 84 percent of funds go to 20 percent of farmers enrolled in subsidy programs, while the majority of farmers receive little or no benefits. No. 1 on the national list is King Ranch in Kingsville, Texas, bringing in $2.7 million in 2004 alone.
Sandner says he agrees the information should be public.
“It’s taxpayer money, so I guess they have the right to know,” he said.
Many others in Boone County’s Top 10 could not be reached or wouldn’t comment on the database’s release.
Cook said people have generally visited the database to see where their state ranks on the national list and identify the top-ranked farmers in their area. He said farmers look at the data to see where they rank compared to their neighbors.
Debate over dollars
The data was released at a critical moment in agricultural policymaking.
The 2002 Farm Bill is set to expire in September. Although subsidy programs get a lot of attention in debates, they are just one part of a bill that covers multiple facets of agriculture. The 2002 bill is made up of 10 areas, including land conservation, nutrition programs such as food stamps, rural community development and alternative energy research.
The subsidies give farmers payments based on the types and amounts of crops they grow. Qualifying crops are wheat, corn, soybeans, other oil seeds, grain sorghum, barley, oats, rice, cotton and peanuts. Farmers enroll in a subsidy program based on how many acres of a particular crop they grew in the past. For example, a wheat farmer enrolling in a subsidy program for the 2002 Farm Bill reported how much wheat he produced from 1998 to 2001. That number would be multiplied by the payment rate for wheat, which is 52 cents a bushel. This is a direct payment, and the farmer receives that money regardless of whether he continues to grow that amount of wheat.
The other type of subsidy, called counter cyclical payment, depends on the crop market. When a crop price falls below a target level, a farmer gets paid based on how many bushels he reports to have produced between 1998 and 2001. The target price for wheat is $3.92 a bushel.
Missouri farmers receive most of their subsidies from corn and soybeans, the two major state crops.
A proposal released in January by Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns called for major reform in the section of the legislation that deals with crop subsidies.
When the House subcommittee on commodity subsidies met in June, however, it proposed extending that portion of the 2002 bill relatively unchanged.
In Mulch, the blog that accompanies the database, Cook pointed out that districts represented by the 18 subcommittee members received about a quarter of all crop subsidies.
“That’s what our farmers are comfortable with and understand,” said U.S. Rep. Sam Graves, R-Mo., a member of the subcommittee. “The administration proposal didn’t get a single vote in the committee. The best-case scenario is that we keep the current legislation in place.”
Instead, the House passed a bill on July 27 that would reduce the profit limit, or adjusted gross income, for receiving subsidies from $2.5 million per year to $1 million. The Bush administration proposal includes reducing the profit limit to $200,000. That means any farmer earning an annual income of $200,000 or more would be ineligible to receive subsidy payments.
The bill would also decrease annual spending on subsidies from $12 billion to $7 billion.
Although the Senate isn’t expected to take action on the bill until September, President Bush threatened to veto the legislation. He says it is still too costly and sets payment limits far above the administration’s proposal.
“USDA itself is saying that a very small percentage of farmers — about 3 percent — have (adjusted gross incomes) of $200,000 or more,” said Scott Brown, a researcher at MU’s Food and Agriculture Policy Research Institute who has provided analyses for the U.S. government on previous farm bills and the current one. Although the USDA’s estimate is low, Brown said others believe a higher proportion of farmers earn more than $200,000 a year.
Brian Riedl, a federal budget analyst at conservative think-tank the Heritage Foundation, has done extensive research on farm policy. He thinks the 2002 Farm Bill does the opposite of what it was created to do.
“The farm bill is promoted as helping small, struggling family farmers,” he said, “when in reality it acts as America’s largest corporate welfare program.”
The first U.S. farm subsidies appeared during the 1930s as part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. In an effort to drive up plummeting crop prices during the Depression, farmers were paid to plant less and reduce supply. Price controls along with raising family farm incomes have been the main motive of federal farm policy. Beginning in 1996, however, producers were given more flexibility on planting choices and yet retained eligibility for farm program payments.
In a recent study, Riedl divided the amount of government money spent by the amount of taxpayers and found that Americans spend an average of $322 a year on farm subsidies.
“The farm bill is bad for taxpayers, consumers, the environment, international trade and health,” Riedl said. He thinks a payment limit such as the one proposed by the administration would at least be better than the current one.
“It’s ludicrous that a couple that makes $2 million a year would be eligible for massive farm subsidies,” he said.
Brown said government officials are responding to the reputation subsidy programs have for supporting “millionaire farmers” such as former Chicago Bulls player Scottie Pippen, who received $80,000 between 2003 and 2005 from land he controls in Arkansas.
“There should be some way to regulate that, some kind of fair-means programs,” said Terry Hilgedick, a Hartsburg farmer. He works on his family’s 1,600-acre farm, which comes up at No. 5 on Boone County’s list of top subsidy receivers and grows corn, soybeans and wheat. “As far as where that line ought to be drawn, well, that’s up to the individual. It’s a hard, long debate.”
Another proposal by the administration would improve at least one facet of payment inequity, Hilgedick said.
“Right now, farmers get paid based on crop prices multiplied by how much they produce. What happens is you have farmers that produce little when prices are low, and they get left out in the cold,” he said.
The administration would like to change the subsidy program from price-based to revenue-based, meaning that farmers would be subsidized when their revenue falls below a certain limit. Under the current system, all farmers get paid when the market price of crops falls below a certain amount regardless of how much revenue they make.
However, Brown says changing the system wouldn’t make a big difference.
“Revenue-based programs aren’t brand new,” he said. “For most farmers, their payments would remain roughly the same.”
He also said that although Congress tries to pass a new farm bill every five years, the decision doesn’t necessarily have to be made this fall.
“The one thing I would say when talking about this year’s debate is stay tuned,” Brown said. “Congress could vote to extend the 2002 Farm Bill, and we could also see some changes. If there is too much debate, it could get held up another year, maybe even two since 2008 is a presidential election year.”
Different points of view
For farmers in Boone County, like the rest of the country, the view depends on the vantage point.
Greg Buckman has been raising cattle and growing crops such as alfalfa, corn, soybeans and wheat on his farm just outside Hallsville since 1979. He produces more than 100,000 bushels of grain a year on the 2,000 acres he shares with his son Jay.
Buckman Farms LLC is ranked No. 12 in Boone County’s list of top beneficiaries, receiving $65,169 in crop subsidies between 2003 and 2005.
Buckman believes in doing away with historical crop yield standards and would like to see farmers paid a flat rate per acre.
He said that since he has been in the farming business, he hasn’t known too many Boone County farmers who make a living out of it.
“There are some out there,” he said, “But for me, it’s just about enjoying the lifestyle.”
Buckman also cited the importance of subsidies for farmers such as himself.
“We need the public, the consumer, to be aware that there are going to have to be subsidies in place in order for us to keep producing,” he said.
Glen Beckmeyer of Beckmeyer Farms, No. 9 on Boone County’s top beneficiary list, offers a different perspective.
“My general opinion is that we should eliminate farm subsidies,” he said. “It should be based on free enterprise and depend on the merits of the business.”
Beckmeyer Farms has been operating in Hallsville since the 1920s and, like most farms in Boone County, its main commodities are corn and soybeans. Beckmeyer says programs that help insure farmers against crop loss due to events like natural disasters are more justifiable than direct payments from the government just for producing certain crops.
“I would say do away with them, but we need them in order to be competitive with nations that have even higher subsidies, like in Europe,” he said.
Dan Kuebler, a farmer who grows vegetables including lettuce, turnips, beets and eggplant on two acres outside Ashland, doesn’t receive any government subsidies. He says he prefers it that way.
“I’m not a huge fan of subsidies,” he said. “Our farm policy is our food policy, and right now it is being driven by commodity groups that have a lot of lobbying power.”
Rhonda Perry of the Missouri Rural Crisis Center holds a similar argument.
“With subsidies, taxpayers end up footing the bill for farmers, and that is not a feasible business,” she said. “If there were an honest debate going on about this, we would not be talking about subsidies at all. Policy makers should look at this public information and look for ways to ensure that farmers can make a decent living through a fair and competitive market.”