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Uncertain Harvest Subsidies Ingrained In Region Backers Say Aid Keeps Food Prices Low, Land Values High, Area Economy Strong

Sweat flies off Gail Cannon’s back as she takes her aerobics class through 90 minutes of grunting belly busters and stair steppers at North Park Racquet and Athletic Club.

Leading four classes a week keeps the 52-year-old aerobics instructor in top shape. But it’s a lot more work, she says, than her other source of income - collecting farm subsidies from the United States Department of Agriculture.

Heir to a Lincoln County wheat farm, Cannon received $17,747 in agricultural payments last year without working on the farm.

Cannon had plenty of company. A Spokesman-Review computer analysis of 6,500 farm payment records in Lincoln, Spokane and Whitman counties found that millions of dollars go to hundreds of large family farms and agribusinesses that dominate the Eastern Washington landscape. Thousands more go to attorneys, real estate agents, universities and others who live in the city but are linked to the farm through relatives or investments.

The money went to those who own or manage farms that grow crops subsidized by the government, or who agreed to idle their farms for a fee and enroll them in a federal soil conservation land bank.

Recipients pay taxes on the subsidies and often a portion of the cost to operate the farm. But for most landlords living off the farm, there’s little work involved.

And taxpayers pick up the tab.

Together, farm and city dwellers in the three counties pocketed $52.7 million in 1994, a year when payments were lower than normal.

Payment records generated by the USDA show that Washington and Idaho residents received more than $3.5 billion during the past decade.

Knowing who gets the money is important because Congress has decided to slow the flow of farm subsidies.

While farmers prepare to harvest, lawmakers are mulling how to spend the money. Budget cutters have earmarked $13 billion in reductions to be made over the next seven years; the farm subsidy bill for fiscal 1996 will be $10 billion.

The effects of such cuts would be felt from North Park Racquet Club to Colfax High School, from Spokane International Airport to the Spokane Industrial Park, from supermarkets to mobile home parks.

The $542,000 paid to Wheatlife Farms in Whitman County, the largest recipient in three counties, likely would drop. But so would the $5,000 sent to Earl and Erma Colyar, a retired couple in Spokane who count on the money to supplement Social Security.

“Farmers take the brunt of criticism for the farm program, but it affects everyone,” says state Sen. Eugene Prince, R-Thornton.

Supporters of the farm program say it’s a tiny price to pay to keep land values strong and producers pumping out bins of grain for low-cost pasta, Twinkies and feed for cattle.

“Cheap food doesn’t happen by accident,” says Prince, who received $2,700 in subsidies last year for his ownership interest in a family farm.

Prince says the nation’s farm program controls production and stabilizes food prices at the supermarket. Without it, farmers would not have the incentive to grow enough food. That could trigger price spikes, food shortages and a weakening of the regional economy.

“If farmers are in trouble, then we’re in trouble,” said Jim Howell Jr., president of the St. John Hardware & Implement Co., which has branches in Airway Heights and Fairfield. “We benefit from price supports.”

But others find farm subsidies offensive, saying they’re the shame of a free-market economy. They believe the federal program is a waste of taxpayers’ money that lines the pockets of a few lucky landlords and growers who operate in a fantasy world of guaranteed income.

“Markets work. The real world works. Farmers live in a subsidized, regulated, mandated world. It’s not the real world,” says Joe Winkelmann, lobbyist for Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington, D.C., group that wants to eliminate the farm program.

Winkelmann would find plenty of disagreement in Eastern Washington and North Idaho, where the image of a fantasy world is the nation’s Capitol.

But it’s easy to see why the farm program is ridiculed. A review of paychecks sent to Lincoln, Spokane and Whitman counties shows that attorneys and aerobics instructors aren’t the only non-farmers getting money. Your own neighbor may be on the agricultural rolls.

The Davenport Car Wash gets money. So does Neal Degerstrom, a Spokane mining millionaire.

Joseph Choi, the Valley watchmaker who killed a robber in self-defense last December, received $500. Don Moos, an aide to Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., got $2,700 while living along the fairways of the Wenatchee Golf and Country Club.

Bill Barany, president of the General Store, Realtor Rod Plese and retired Whitworth College baseball coach Paul Merkel all received money as landowners in the government’s farm program.

“It pays for the taxes,” says Merkel, who received $908 last year off an inherited piece of land near Edwall, Wash.

The program is good for charity, too. More than a dozen churches, cemeteries and universities collected money from the USDA. The Spokane Airport Board cashed a $10,604 check in 1994, while Bothell-based Lakeside Recovery Center, a renowned substance abuse treatment facility, was sent $4,794.

Gonzaga University cashed a $2,065 check; Whitworth College, $4,587; the University of Puget Sound, $8,137.

In a kind of block-grant transfer of public money, the USDA paid the Washington Department of Natural Resources a whopping $180,000 for its stake in farm land in the three counties.

“Natural Resources is our largest farmer,” says Larry Albin, state executive of the Consolidated Farm Service Agency, the USDA unit that issues subsidy checks.

Albin says payments overall were lower in 1994 than in previous years thanks to higher crop prices and a gradual reduction of the nation’s agricultural budget. Higher crop prices lower the government’s cost of price-support programs.

In the past 10 years, farm payments in Washington have ranged from a low of $131.1 million in 1989 to a high of $298.7 million in 1986. The 10-year average was $204 million, according to the CFSA.

In Idaho, farm payments averaged $154 million a year.

While most payments go to working farmers, a lot end up in the hands of people whose ties to the farm are a generation or more removed. Even they think the money is a bit embarrassing.

“There’s no comparison - I earn my money at the club,” says Cannon, the aerobics instructor and great-granddaughter of Harrington, Wash., wheat farmer Luther Turner.

“I realize this (subsidies) can’t go on forever. I don’t want to give it up, but I realize that’s not going to happen.”

Farmers have mixed feelings about whether the program works. Bill Heinemann of Ritzville believes farmers would be more successful without government subsidies and the regulatory strings attached to the money.

“I’m eager to see the government get out of agriculture,” Heinemann says. “I don’t think we’ve benefited from the money that’s been spent.”

But Whitman County farmer Read Smith says the program provides an incentive to increase conservation farming practices. It also helps recover losses that growers incur when the State Department cuts off wheat sales to out-of-favor customers such as Iraq, Iran and China.

“There’s a perception that we’re freeloaders and welfare recipients, but nothing could be further from the truth,” says Smith, who received $58,000 in subsidies last year. “We have to compete with countries who have unlimited use of resources that we’re not permitted to use.”

Washington State University economist Leroy Blakeslee says the loss of federal farm payments would have little effect on the Pacific Northwest economy, since more than half of all agricultural products have no government support. Closer to home, however, the story could be different.

“It’s not likely to have a big effect, but where it could matter is in grain farming right here in the Inland Empire,” he says. “In the local communities, there could very much be an impact.”

The Colyars, who live in a mobile home in west Spokane, have mixed feelings about farm subsidies. Their check, which comes as a share of a Lamont, Wash., wheat farm from which they retired in 1979, enables the retired couple to visit daughters in Maryland and Hawaii each year.

But taking money from the government runs contrary to their experience as independent farmers, who remember hitching horses to the plow and seeding dwarf winter wheat when neighbors said it wouldn’t grow.

“Young farmers now are so dependent on government payments they don’t think they can make it without subsidies,” says Earl Colyar, an 83-year-old who lost two fingers in a combine.

“City people think we’re getting rich from government payments,” he adds, pausing for a breath. “We aren’t.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 3 Photos (2 color)