Tuesday, June 20, 2006

TOP STORY >> Should rich farmers get subsidies?

Leader staff writer

IN SHORT: Watchdog groups say wealthy politicians like Cong. Berry and Sen. Lincoln and celebrities like Ted Turner, Scotty Pippen and Sam Donaldson shouldn’t get farm aid.

Farm subsidies that started in the 1930s, when the average farmer’s income was about half that of most other Americans, have grown over the years as family farms have failed and been taken over by corporations. About 10 percent of farmers now collect about 70 percent of the billions of dollars in agriculture subsidies that have been doled out in recent years.

The subsidies are tied to production, with no consideration to which farmers most need the help, so the bigger the production, the bigger the subsidy. That some rich and famous hobby farmers like former news anchor Sam Donaldson, media mogul Ted Turner and former NBA star Scotty Pippen also receive the subsidies rankles watchdog groups who call it government waste.

Those same groups have been eyeing First District Cong. Marion Berry, D-Gillett, and Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., whose family farms participate in the subsidy programs. Now Berry has been accused of manipulating the system and collecting more than $800,000 in subsidies for his family’s farming operation over a nine-year period while he was in Washington and unable to oversee it.

Cabot Mayor Stubby Stumbaugh, Berry’s Republican opponent for Congress, says Berry’s support of farm subsidies is self-serving.

But Stumbaugh also says that he doubts it will hurt Berry among the Democrats, who usually support him.
“People forget,” Stumbaugh said.

Berry is accused of signing over 25 percent of the stocks in his farm corporation to his son Mitchell Berry and 25 percent to Danny Sloate, the farm manager, to meet a federal requirement that 50 percent of the ownership of the farm corporation must be actively involved in the operation to be eligible for subsidies.

John Andrews, a 35-year-old farmer from Walnut Ridge, a Democratic area that has helped vote Berry into Congress, says he believes Berry’s support is as strong as ever despite the criticism.

Most people don’t understand the importance of the subsidies that keep American farms operating and provide a steady supply of food that is relatively inexpensive and wholesome, Andrews said.

“The American public pays about 10 percent of their annual income for food,” he said. “We have the cheapest, safest food supply in the world because of subsidies.”

That is why the farmers who do understand the importance of the subsidies will still support Berry in November, Andrews said.

“I don’t think it’s going to hurt him one bit with farmers who know the process,” Andrews said. “If the Arkansas farmer has a friend in Congress, it’s Marion Berry. He should not be penalized for following the rules that all the rest of us do.”

Andrews, his father and brother farm 3,000 acres of rice and soybeans on land they rent mostly from farmers who had to quit.

Increasing production by farming more acreage is one tactic that has worked to keep the farm going as prices for fuel and fertilizer have risen, he said.

Additionally, they are using better seed and chemicals and better management practices, he said.

But with all the improvements they have made, the farm wouldn’t make it without the subsidies that are even used as collateral for the bank loans they take out every year to plant the crops, Andrews said.

“If you take the subsidies out of the picture, the bank wouldn’t even finance me,” he said.

“Without subsidies, we’d go out of business, and we might go out even with them,” he said, explaining that when the last farm bill passed in 2002 setting the subsidies for the next five years, the cost of doing business was about half what it is today.

“We lost a bunch of farmers just last year,” he said.

Asked the source of that information, Andrews said all one had to do was look around at all the equipment being sold at auction.

“I’ll be honest with you, last year, I lost money,” he said.

Stumbaugh struck back on Monday, a day after the expose about Berry’s questionable transfer of farm corporation stocks to a farm employee that helped Berry meet the requirements for drawing subsidies even though he was not on the farm to oversee operations.

Stumbaugh sent out a press release lambasting his opponent and assuring First District voters that he will do a better job for them.

“In a day when some Arkansas farmers are suffering and not getting the help they need, it’s sad to see a congressman making hundreds of thousands of dollars off of the federal government,” he said. “No wonder he has supported and voted for farm subsidies the way he has. It is apparent that his true interest is not the farmers of the First District, but rather padding his pocket.

“While I will also vote for bills that will help and support farmers, I will also follow through and make sure they actually get the help. I will not cast a vote on issues that affect me personally if I am not able to help people of the first district as well. To me, doing otherwise seems unethical.”

Berry also responded to his critics.

“I have worked for and fought for the viability of farm programs and family farms my entire life,” he said in a press release Tuesday.

“I make no apologies for that effort. I intend to continue my effort to support agriculture and rural America with every fiber of my being and with the energy that God Almighty gives me. I am absolutely confident that I have acted appropriately in every possible way.

“The ongoing assault by the Bush administration and the Republican Congress on American agriculture is unprecedented and demands action by a new and responsible Democratic Congress,” Berry said.