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HARVESTING GREENBACKS IN NEW YORK

If President Bush's recent proposal to cap farm subsidy payments at $250,000 had been in effect in 2003, only one of the New York farmers receiving checks from Uncle Sam would have lost a dime.

Why? Because only Star Growers, located in Elba, between Rochester and Buffalo, received federal farm support payments larger than $250,000 in 2003 after adding in hefty "disaster" payments. Of the state's 15,390 farm support recipients that year, the top 20 percent got 68 percent of the money, or about $35,000 each. The rest averaged just $4,000 each.

Once a helping hand for struggling family farmers, Washington's $17 billion a year farm program has become a gravy train for large corporate farms. Nationally, only 3,393 farmers in 2003, out of 1,836,536 farm subsidy recipients, received more than $250,000.

The more acreage a farmer has in the heavily subsidized crops -- cotton, rice, peanuts, corn, wheat and soybeans -- the bigger will be the payments. In 2003 the biggest subsidies in New York were dairy, $82 million; corn, $34 million; and apples, $10 million.

The great majority of all U.S. farm subsidy recipients, numbering 1,470,664, got checks averaging less than $2,000 each in 2003. But payments to big farm operatives, the top 5 percent or 91,916 recipients, averaged $91,000 -- a whopping 45 times more than the little guys.

To keep this tax spigot wide open, corporate farmers are counting on help from their Washington guardians and a federal watchdog that sleeps a lot.

Within hours of the White House announcing it wanted to limit federal farm payments, Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss., chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and 100 farm groups were reported to be "gearing up to fight the White House proposal." Cochran told the New York Times, "Frankly, I don't think anyone in the administration really thought Congress would go along with this."

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is the federal watchdog in Washington charged with enforcing this rule and making sure that only eligible farmers get paid. But in 2004 the U.S. General Accountability Office found that the "USDA is not effectively overseeing farm program payments -- and does not ensure that only eligible recipients receive payments." The GAO added that large farms form complex supplier, grower and buyer networks that are "structured as one or more partnerships, each consisting of multiple corporations that increased farm program payments in a questionable manner."

While President Bush's proposal is a step in the right direction, it does not go far enough. Continued government interference in the agricultural marketplace will do more harm than good. There is simply no reason why American taxpayers should go on fattening the coffers of wealthy corporate farmers. Uncle Sam should step aside and let the marketplace sort out the winners and losers in New York and elsewhere.

Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington civil liberties organization.