Local ag subsidies
- Ranked 28 of 57 Colorado counties in amount of subsidies received
- Received nearly $16 million in subsidies from 1995 to 2006
- Ranked 20 of 50 states in amount of subsidies received
- Received $3.14 billion in subsidies from 1995 to 2006
- 68 percent of farmers and ranchers do not collect government subsidy payments, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture
- Among subsidy recipients, 10 percent collected 67 percent of all subsidies, amounting to $2.1 billion in 12 years.
- Recipients in the top 10 percent averaged $40,484 in annual payments from 1995 to 2006. The bottom 80 percent of the recipients saw only $1,174 on average per year.
Source: The Environmental Working Group, farm.ewg.org/farm
Steamboat Springs In some years, Hayden farmer Duane Hockett wouldn't have made it without subsidies from the U.S. government, he said. A crop-smashing hailstorm or a dive in wheat prices can shatter his season and leave him scrambling to make do.
That means the U.S. Farm Bill, legislation that governs those subsidies and was last revised in 2002, directly affects Hockett and other Routt County farmers and ranchers.
The measure working its way through Congress has been contentious in Washington, D.C. President Bush blasted House and Senate proposals as too costly because they were $10 billion over the budget Bush requested, U.S. Rep. John Salazar said. The Democrat represents Colorado's Third Congressional District, which includes Routt and Moffat counties and much of the Western Slope.
Bush signed a one-week extension of the current farm bill April 18, giving Congress time to trim or offset the costs as they negotiated a new proposal. Lawmakers planned to request a two-week extension as of Thursday, Salazar said.
"We just got word a little bit ago that we're 99.1 percent completed with the farm bill," said Salazar, who praised it as "the greatest farm bill that has ever been done."
Salazar highlighted additional conservation subsidies and funding for renewable energy development as provisions that would be particularly helpful to Routt County farmers.
Those conservation subsidies have kept Hockett's family farm afloat, Hockett said. He has farmed wheat south of Hayden for about 40 years. The family received more than $1 million in subsidies from 1995 to 2006, according to the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit group that runs a farm subsidy database.
Through the conservation subsidies, the Hockett family gets money to compensate for land that is environmentally unsound for farming - land, for example, that erodes easily.
A question of need
Subsidies are controversial. Some argue that it's unfair to single out agriculture for aid and that the government should let the free market handle the industry. Many farmers and ranchers disagree.
Tom Maneotis, who received hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies from 1995 to 2006 for his sheep ranch near Oak Creek, said those who oppose the funds don't understand the issue.
"They call that a subsidy, but it's really not a subsidy," Maneotis said. "So many people have gone out of the feed business because of prices and stuff. They hope to assist the ones who stay in so we don't have to import so much from foreign countries."
Keeping a stable domestic feed supply is crucial for U.S. agriculture, he said.
Others look at rising prices of commodities such as wheat and challenge whether subsidies are necessary. Wheat was trading above $8 a bushel on the commodities market Thursday afternoon. Last season, $5 was a good price, Hockett said. It later went up to $12, he said.
But high prices don't always feed buckets of cash into his account.
"Last year, the price was up, but the yield was low" because of drought, Hockett said. "We got the rain after our wheat was done. We had one of the lowest yields we've ever had. : You take the yield and the price, and we had an average year."
The price fluctuations frustrate Hockett and Maneotis. When prices seesaw for a 60-pound bushel of wheat, farmers must make a call. They could sell at $8 - but what if it goes to $12?
"You become more of a speculator than a farmer," said Hockett, who typically sells his harvest October through January.
He said lawmakers should not cut subsidies based on changing prices.
"That's been our experience in the past: It always goes back down," Hockett said.
Because the market sets prices, Maneotis said, those in the agriculture business have a tough time defraying rising costs. He said the price of fuel has created a burden.
"We've got to transport these sheep all over, and we've got to be out to check them every day," he said. "Our fuel budget's doubled in the past three years. It just keeps eating away."
Salazar said $1.6 billion planned for energy should ease that burden. Part of that funding is slated to promote alternative renewable energy, which he said he hopes will lower fuel prices.
Cash in the right hands
Lawmakers also are concerned about where the agriculture subsidies are going. They plan to set an income cap for those who receive subsidies, Salazar said.
"The reforms actually call for a $500,000 gross income cap," he said. "Anyone making that much cannot receive a farm payment unless 66 percent of their gross income comes from that farming. It really limits it to real farmers."
That segment of the measure is meant to ensure that only those who farm or ranch for a living receive government cash, Salazar said.
"The concern was that rich doctors and lawyers that had a hobby farm or a hobby ranch were receiving these benefits from the government," he said.
Maneotis said that provision would be appropriate.
"I think it's got to be people who make a living off farming or ranching," he said. "I mean, if it's a hobby and they're not creating a cash flow, you can always get rid of (the farm). For people who depend on it for a living, it's a different situation."
Hockett and Maneotis, the Routt County farmer and the Routt County rancher, said they keep an eye on the farm bill. But Hockett said he doesn't bother worrying.
"I haven't read the new law or seen what they've done," the Hayden farmer said. "It's kind of a waste of time until something is approved. And then you go out there and see what you can do with it."