Balanced on a three-legged stool of government subsidies, Inland Northwest grain farms are especially vulnerable to proposed cuts in Congress.
Price supports, conservation payments and export assistance contribute up to one-third of revenue on some wheat, barley and feed grain farms. A husband and wife team can annually earn up to $100,000 from these programs.
Last year, taxpayers paid price supports of $83.2 million to Washington farmers; $61.2 million to Idaho farmers.
Payments to wheat farmers made up the difference for prices that at times fell below the government’s arbitrary target price of $4 a bushel.
The second set of subsidies comes from the Conservation Reserve Program, a fancy title for idling 36 million acres of land nationwide - nearly 2 million acres in Washington and Idaho.
Taxpayers pay rent to farmers and landowners to preserve fragile land from erosive tillage practices and provide wildlife habitat. The conservation contracts cost taxpayers $45 to $100 an acre annually, depending on the land value.
Adams County is the largest Conservation Reserve county in the nation, with farmers idling 336 square miles, or 25 percent, of available crop land. Taxpayers send $10.7 million each year to Adams County landowners - a process repeated in hundreds of counties across the nation.
The other key source of government support is export assistance. Nearly 90 percent of the 300 million bushels of wheat harvested each year in the Pacific Northwest ships offshore through Portland and Seattle terminals.
Much of it is sold by giving bonuses to grain exporters to encourage sales.
Wheat bonuses paid under the federal Export Enhancement Program this year will cost U.S. taxpayers about $500 million, USDA officials say.
The bonuses make up the difference between the cash market price of wheat and the discount price foreign flour mills would pay if they chose to buy from Europe, which heavily subsidizes its farmers.
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WHAT’S NEXT Congress will begin to address the fine points of the 1995 farm bill after the Easter break. Some of the events expected are: Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman will give Congress the administration’s Farm Bill proposals. Budget committees in the Senate and the House will tell the agriculture committees how much money they have to spend. House Agriculture Committee and its subcommittees begin field hearings April 19. None is scheduled in the Pacific Northwest.