Federal subsidies intended to boost farm income and aid the rural economy also benefit some of the richest neighborhoods on Spokane’s South Hill, a government watchdog group says.
Since 1985, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has sent 87,776 checks to people living inside the city limits of Spokane who own farmland, totaling $72.7 million in subsidy payments. More than one-third of that was paid to South Hill residents, according to a massive analysis of USDA records by the Environmental Working Group.
Another $3.6 million went to residents of Coeur d’Alene during the past decade, the Washington, D.C.-based non-profit environmental group said.
Nationwide, the Environmental Working Group found that $1.8 billion in agricultural subsidy payments were made to residents of the 50-largest metropolitan areas - out of $106 billion in total payments to support farm income, assist farms struck by natural disasters and idle fragile farmland.
“It seems almost anyone can be a qualified farmer,” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group.
“This money ends up going all over the place. I can’t believe there isn’t a more efficient way to deliver support to the farm than to send it to the cities.”
Cook today will release his group’s findings to the Senate Agriculture Committee, which is considering the merits of the nation federal farm program. The subsidy program, started during the Depression to help starving farm families, has grown into a tempting $10 billion target for budget-cutters.
The report draws attention to a controversial but small portion of federal farm subsidies.
Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Richard Lugar, R-Ind., has been especially critical of the current program, saying it is outdated and taxpayers may not be getting their money’s worth.
The Environmental Working Group compiled its information by searching through 110 million computer records from the Department of Agriculture. In a 48-page report titled “City Slickers,” the non-profit research group documents how payments on farms sprinkled across America have poured into the pockets of urban landowners. The report was funded with grants from six companies and organizations, including Apple Computer Corp. and the Ford Foundation.
The report reflects the rancorous feel ings on both sides of the subsidy debate. Agriculture groups point out that city-based organizations which criticize subsidies don’t seem to mind cheap food or the economic stimulus their cities receive from spending by farmers and farm owners.
Larry Albin, Washington state executive director of the Consolidated Farm Service Agency, the USDA agency that manages the farm program and writes the subsidy checks, said the government makes direct payments to protect family farms from financial collapse and stabilize the nation’s food supply and prices at the supermarket. By law, the payments must be distributed equally among owners of the farm.
As new technology and thin profit margins reduced the number of people living on farms over the years, an increasing number of landlords migrated to cities such as Spokane and leased their ground to their neighbors or children, Albin said.
“Why should they be denied a return on their investment because they own property in the country but live in the city?” Albin said. “People have a right to own the land in this country and get a return from it. It shouldn’t matter to taxpayers where it goes.”
According to the study, the payments go everywhere. Landowners in Spokane received government payments from farms in 24 states, including South Carolina, Texas, Nebraska and Minnesota.
A South Hill corporation was Spo kane’s biggest recipient of direct farm payments, pocketing $810,424 from 1984 through September 1994, the period reviewed by the Environmental Working Group. A downtown non-profit organization was the fifthlargest recipient. The USDA did not release the names of the landlords.