By the numbers
USDA farm subsidies (1995 to 2009)
1. Texas: $23.08 billion
2. Iowa: $20.98 billion
3. Illinois: $17.58 billion
4. Minnesota: $14.38 billion
5. Nebraska: $13.99 billion
21. Colorado: $4.50 billion
By Colorado county
1. Kit Carson County: $481.39 million
2. Yuma County: $448.40 million
3. Weld County: $380.33 million
4. Washington County: $325.55 million
5. Baca County: $321.30 million
33. Routt County: $19.14 million
Source: Environmental Working Group’s Farm Subsidy Database
Steamboat Springs Kurt Frentress said 20 percent of his Hayden farm’s revenue comes in the form of farm subsidies, support provided by the federal government.
Some of that support is on the chopping block.
House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, has proposed a $3.5 trillion budget for 2012. It would reduce U.S. Department of Agriculture farm subsidies by $30 billion during the next 10 years, 20 percent of the $150 billion of expected spending in that time period.
The cuts would come from direct payments, which are based on historical production and are given to farmers regardless of how much they grow or what they sell it for.
The few commodity-producing farms remaining in Routt County receive relatively little federal assistance, but a reduction in farm subsidies next year still would affect their livelihoods.
“It would hurt our operation,” Frentress said. “There were years we couldn’t stay in business without the farm subsidies.”
The government provides several types of farm subsidies. They are provided for disaster relief and conservation. The subsidies proposed to be cut, direct payments, support commodity production.
For example, Frentress received $19,175 for his crops in 2009, according to the Farm Subsidy Database created by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit group that promotes “health-protective and subsidy-shifting” policy.
Frentress grows wheat, barley, alfalfa and safflower on about 8,000 acres west of Hayden on land that has been in his family since the late 1800s.
From 1995 to 2009, Frentress received nearly $764,000 in farm subsidies. By comparison, The Nature Conservancy received more than $4.6 million in total subsidies during that time.
Those include payments for participating in Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers to plant grass for soil stabilization and erosion control. It also protects the land and provides wildlife habitats. Last year, Frentress also received $50,000 in conservation subsidies.
Local farmers’ participation in the conservation program is part of the reason few remain in the county, Routt County Extension Agent CJ Mucklow said. He said the county’s distance from where crops are sold also has contributed to the decline.
Mucklow said farm subsidies are a small part of the county’s agriculture economy.
According to the Farm Subsidy Database, Routt County received more than $19 million in all subsidies from 1995 to 2009, placing it 33rd among Colorado’s 64 counties. By comparison, Kit Carson County received more than $481 million during that time.
Colorado ranked 21st in subsidies, receiving more than $4.5 billion. That’s nearly one-fifth of the more than $23 billion received from 1995 to 2009 by Texas, the state that had the most farm subsidies.
Because the county and state are less reliant on federal support, the impacts of cuts wouldn’t be as great as in other commodity-producing areas, said Marsha Daughenbaugh, executive director of the Community Agriculture Alliance.
Daughenbaugh, who also is a member of Colorado’s Farm Service Agency committee that administers the federal farm subsidies, said they were created to keep farmers’ revenue streams consistent.
In his budget plan, Ryan said that has changed. He said the “record-breaking prosperity” of American farmers should be celebrated.
“But it also calls for a re-examination of federal agricultural programs that spend billions each year, to ensure that taxpayers aren’t funding support for a sector that is more than capable of thriving on its own,” Ryan stated in his report.
Daughenbaugh disagreed. Despite good prices that in some cases are the highest in decades, she said it’s not necessarily a good idea to cut farm subsidies.
“Historically, they’ve always been volatile,” she said about prices. “They go up and down. The subsidies were designed to help even that out. I think there are too many outside forces that play into the prices that a farmer or rancher are going to get for their product.”
The Denver-based Rocky Mountain Farmers Union, an advocacy group for the state’s farmers, is taking a different approach to the proposed subsidy cuts.
Leland Swenson, the group’s executive vice president, said the union doesn’t think the farm subsidy program should be structured to support farmers when prices are good, but when they’re low. He said the Farmers Union would work with federal lawmakers to reallocate funds and make them available to farmers for crop insurance and disaster relief.
Swenson said the Farmers Union thinks that would better protect farmers’ livelihoods by helping them combat issues beyond their control, such as weather, to maintain the country’s food production system for consumers.
He added that of the funding in the farm bill, 67 cents of every dollar supports nutrition programs, such as the National School Lunch Program, which provides meals to low-income students for free or at a reduced cost.
“When we talk about farm subsidies and what can be reduced there, it’s a small percentage of what’s in the farm bill,” he said.
In Steamboat farmer Mike Hogue’s opinion, direct payment subsidies shouldn’t be cut partly because they’re a small percentage of the farm bill and federal budget.
He said in an email that farm products are used to make food, fiber and shelter, what he called “fundamental ingredients needed to exist.” If they weren’t produced in the United States, Hogue said the country would import them, comparing it the country’s dependence on foreign oil.
Hogue operates on 1,500 acres between Steamboat and Milner. Because only 100 acres of that is used for wheat production, he won’t benefit from farm subsidies next year, but he argued for their importance.
“As a deficit-reduction measure, eliminating farm payments would not have much effect as farm program payments only make up three-tenths of 1 percent of the federal budget,” he said. “Three-tenths of 1 percent is pretty cheap for Americans who enjoy the safest, most abundant food supply in the world.”
Frentress said he wouldn’t be opposed to subsidies for large corporate farms being cut.
According to the Farm Subsidy Database, 62 percent of the country’s farmers don’t receive subsidies. It indicated that the top 10 percent received 74 percent of all subsidies between 1995 and 2009.
Frentress depends on the subsidies he receives for a farm that also includes some cattle and a hunting operation. He said it’s a tough business.
“There’s just not much money in it,” he said. “The economics are so tight. You have to get fairly large. There’s about three of us who make the majority of our money from wheat farming left in Routt.”
To reach Jack Weinstein, call 970-871-4203 or email jweinstein@SteamboatToday.com