Byron Dorgan and Charles Grassley don't get it. Kent Conrad and Collin Peterson do. All are from the Midwest, represent heavily agricultural constituents and serve on the House or Senate Agriculture Committees.
But when it comes to the issue of payment limits, Dorgan and Grassley simply do not understand how commercial-size farms operate. Those two have been trying to hamstring larger farm operations by imposing stricter payment limit regulations.
Their oft-repeated claim that “70 percent to 80 percent of farm payments go to 10 percent of the farmers” has become the motto of an anti-farm coalition led by the Environmental Working Group and media outlets such as the Washington Post. The latter have forced changes in the 2008 farm bill that may harm some row crop farmers.
But the damage they intended may be far less than it could have been without the efforts of Conrad, senior Democrat on the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Peterson, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
Minnesota's Peterson has said farm payments are key to farmers obtaining financing that allows them to remain independent and not subject to the control of big business. Conrad of North Dakota took a different tack in a recent interview.
Conrad said the statistics others have used to foster the idea most farm payments go to wealthy farmers are “misleading” because USDA considers any entity that has $1,000 or more in gross receipts a year to be a farm.
“The vast majority of the people they call farmers are in that category, and most of those have the overwhelming percentage of their income off-farm,” said Conrad, noting that his son has a “mini-farm” in Oregon that would fit in that category. “He has more than $1,000 in gross receipts, but he's not a farmer. He has a fulltime job in town.
“To say those people aren't getting much in farm program payments, well, of course, they're not. They're not producing much. The farm program payments follow production.”
Conrad said those who receive more than $50,000 per year in farm receipts get less of a share of farm program payments than their production. Those who get less than $50,000 in farm receipts get more as a share of farm program payments than their production
“That's the way it works, and those who are producing the most are the ones who get the lion's share of the payments. Interestingly enough, they get less than their proportionate share.” (A fact backed up by Barry Flinch-baugh, Kansas State University agricultural economist.)
“Sometimes these facts get lost with our East Coast media friends, and I would put the Washington Post at the top of the list. They have written a series of stories that have a kernel of truth to them, and they never bother to tell both sides of the story. To me, that is unfair to their readers and unfair to the farm and ranch families who they disparage.”