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Farm Program Pays $1.3 Billion to People Who Don't Farm

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) used his power as chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on agriculture to push through $3 billion in "emergency" assistance to grain, cotton and dairy farmers. That was only the beginning of a retreat by Republicans fearing retribution at the polls in key "red" states with broad farm constituencies.

"The original intent was to make a step in the direction of eliminating farm programs," said then-House Majority Leader Richard K. Armey (R-Tex.), who led an unsuccessful fight in the 1990s to trim the subsidies. "By 1998, there was no zeal left."

Instead of cutting, Congress ended up expanding the program, now known as direct and countercyclical payments. A program intended to cost $36 billion over seven years instead topped $54 billion.

"The farm policy we're pursuing now has no rhyme or reason, and we're just sending big checks to big farmers," said Gary Mitchell, now a family farmer in Kansas who was once a top aide to then-Rep. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), the 1996 bill's House sponsor. "They're living off their welfare checks."

Efforts to overhaul the farm subsidy network have been repeatedly thwarted by powerful farm-state lawmakers in Congress allied with agricultural interests.

"The strength of the farm lobby in this town is really unbelievable," Armey said. "I don't think there's a smaller group of constituents that has a bigger influence."

'Cowboy Starter Kits'

Farmers and landowners benefited from the 1996 law whether their land once grew wheat, corn, cotton or any of the other subsidized crops. But nowhere is the impact more evident than in the sunbaked Texas rice country that spreads southwest from Houston to the Colorado River and east to the Gulf of Mexico.

In 1981, the Texas rice belt extended over about 600,000 acres. By last year, USDA records show, the amount of planted rice had shrunk to 202,000 acres, partly because landowners were able to get farm payments even if no rice was grown on their land.

In fact, so many landowners and farmers are collecting money on their former ricelands -- $37 million last year alone -- that the acres no longer used for rice outnumber the planted ones.

"So many wealthy people are getting so much money off this, it's going to be hard to cut," said Michael Wollam, a rice farmer from Brazoria County.

At a housing development rising from old rice fields on the outskirts of El Campo, 70 miles southwest of Houston, local real estate broker John K. Petty purchased a 75-acre tract from investors in July 2002. He held on to it for a few months, then carved it up and resold it for housing.

"At one time, the area was all farmed in rice," Petty said. Now, the dusty tract is perfect for what he calls "cowboy starter kits," residential tracts owned by nonfarmers but still large enough to keep a horse in the back yard.

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