|Do your taxes feed the rich?
The Grand Rapids Press | November 11, 2007
GRAND RAPIDS -- Not everybody who gets crop subsidies is a farmer.
Consider Dick DeVos. That Dick DeVos. The former president of Alticor Inc., the son of one of the richest men in the country, the Republican who ran the most expensive campaign for governor in Michigan history.
He got more than $6,000 in federal farm subsidies from 2003 to 2005, mostly for corn.
His wife, Betsy, got an equal share.
A close DeVos associate, Jerry Tubergen, who lives in a $1 million home in Ada Township, got a slightly smaller cut.
The DeVoses are joined on the farm subsidy list by other big names, including David Rockefeller, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and talk-show host David Letterman.
Critics of the far-reaching farm bill, being debated in the U.S. Senate, hope to change that. They say too many millionaires, absentee landowners and big factory farms benefit from a program born in the 1930s to help family farmers survive the Dust Bowl and Great Depression.
Among the absentee farmers are 21 people who live or work in downtown Grand Rapids, miles from the nearest farm. They received more than $225,000 among them from 2003 to 2005.
Nationwide, the top 10 percent of farms get two-thirds of commodity subsidies, according to the Washington D.C.-based Environmental Working Group (EWG), which tracks subsidies and is lobbying for change.
Eleven individual farmers in West Michigan took in more than $300,000 each over the same three years. Among them were a father and son from Ottawa County, who each got more than $400,000.
"If the programs were set up to truly help family farmers in middle America, they're not doing that. They're failing at it," said EWG lobbyist Sandra Schubert.
"One way to get back to that is to make sure these multimillionaires aren't getting tax dollars."
The lion's share of the $286 billion farm bill that passed the House funds food stamp and nutritional programs. Crop subsidies account for $42 billion of the five-year House version, but several proposals in the Senate would reduce or eliminate those subsidies, including the bipartisan FRESH Act, sponsored by Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Indiana, and Frank Lautenberg, D-New Jersey.
Supporters of crop subsidies say they keep food prices low and allow U.S. farmers to compete globally. The subsidies guarantee farmers can pay for things such as fuel, seeds and fertilizer if poor weather results in bad yields.
"I don't really look at this as a welfare program to help poor farmers who can't quite put bread on the table," said Grand Rapids-based agricultural consultant Loren Koeman, who gets subsidies for corn he grows on leased land in Ottawa County.
"I look at it as this: We're trying to keep the U.S. farm industry strong, to keep U.S. farmers competitive in the world, to make sure the U.S. has an ample and safe food supply."
'Dumping' vs. subsidizing
Apple growers in West Michigan and other parts of the U.S. have accused China of dumping apple products here.
Those local growers applauded when the federal government slapped tariffs on Chinese apple-juice concentrate, saying Chinese producers shipped it to the United States at prices significantly below the cost of making it.
Koeman cautions against that apples-to-corn comparison.
"There is a difference between dumping and subsidization," he said, adding that the World Trade Organization is working to create a level playing field with China and other countries competing in commodities.
"We're not there yet," Koeman said. "And I don't think we (the U.S.) can unilaterally disarm."
Third-generation farmer Merle Langeland, who milks 300 cows and grows corn, wheat and soybeans on 2,200 acres in northeast Ottawa County, said he could survive without farm subsidies. He received $209,000 in subsidies, mostly on corn, from 2003 to 2005.
"Produce guys are not subsidized at all, and they've survived over the years," he said. "The way I look at it, every farmer ultimately is in competition with his neighbor. If I didn't get subsidies and my neighbor didn't get subsidies, it would still be a level playing field."
However, the consumer would pay with higher prices and a less stable supply, said Langeland, whose grandfather started the farm in the 1930s.
Supporters of Lugar's FRESH Act say U.S. farm policies violate WTO commitments. Because of that, they say Brazil will have the authority to retaliate against U.S. products, including agricultural goods and intellectual property.
Some proposed changes in the bill are likely to survive. For the first time, there is money for fruit, vegetable and other specialty crops -- $3 billion in the Senate bill. There's also more for conservation and nutrition programs for children.
The bills also make it tougher for the rich to belly up to the federal trough, though Schubert says "it's not far enough."
Under the current law, anybody with an adjusted gross income of more than $2.5 million and who makes less than 75 percent of their income from farming is not eligible for farm subsidies.
That would seem to rule out the DeVoses, Rockefellers, Allens and Lettermans.
But critics say there are many loopholes.
"How Paul Allen gets them, we have no way of knowing," Schubert said. "We do know he's an extremely wealthy man."
The House bill lowers the income cap from $2.5 million to $1 million, while the Senate bill drops it to $750,000 by 2010.
Some House members last week targeted big factory farms, pushing for an amendment to put a $250,000 per-year cap on how much a single farm could get in commodity subsidies.
Their Ada Holdings LLC bought it parcel by parcel in the early 2000s for a total of more than $5.2 million, Ada Township property records show.
From 2001 to 2005, Ada Holdings raked in $30,413 in farm subsidies for corn, wheat and soybeans, according to USDA records released to the Environmental Working Group.
Dick and Betsy DeVos' share was $6,530 each.
Dick DeVos, whose gubernatorial platform included cutting government waste and putting a "time limit on welfare," did not return phone calls for this story.
But spokesman John Truscott said the DeVoses were not aware they were getting subsidies.
They bought the land to protect it from housing development and leased it to Ben Thomet, who operates a neighboring horse ranch.
"It's mainly a farm now," Truscott said. "They are committed to keeping this in agricultural use at least for the foreseeable future."
"I didn't know he farmed," said Michigan Farm Bureau national lobbyist Ryan Findlay.
Findlay believes DeVos is an exception in the state. Most subsidies in Michigan go to family farmers, he said.
"You're saving family farms across the state," he said of the subsidies. "The majority of the folks are mom and dad and children farming together.
"It's helping keep rural Michigan going. It's a great safety net for them."
Nearly 300 Michigan farmers got more than $200,000 apiece in crop subsidies from 2003 to 2005.
In 2005 alone, 1,205 state farmers got more than the state's average adjusted gross income of $48,000.
U.S. Rep. Pete Hoekstra, R- Holland, whose district covers farm fields from Allegan to Manistee, voted against the House farm bill, saying he opposed a tax increase that would help pay for it.
"I call them subsidies, but if someone called it farm welfare, I wouldn't get into a big debate with them about it," he said.
From 2003 to 2005, Dennis Boersen got more than $480,000 in crop subsidies -- tops among West Michigan farmers and fourth in the state.
No. 2 on the West Michigan list was his father, Arlan Boersen, who got nearly $450,000.
Between the two and the other two partners in Boersen Farms -- Ross and Sandra Boersen -- they received nearly $1.3 million.
Arlan and Dennis Boersen declined to comment for this story.
"I don't know if it's right, but if farmers wouldn't get it, they couldn't make a go of it," said longtime farmer Glen DeVries, 73, who lives next to the main Boersen farm in Zeeland Township.
DeVries leases land to the Boersens. They operate the biggest John Deere combines, are well-known on the national tractor-pulling circuit and were working in their cornfields at 1 a.m. the other day.
"They're sharp. They know how to handle money, and they ain't afraid to work," DeVries said.
High risks, high rewards?
Take, for example, Golden Grain Farms, of Hamilton, listed at the top of the crop subsidy list for farm businesses in West Michigan -- getting nearly $1.2 million from 2003 to 2005.
The farm, owned by Nathan Brink and his wife, Marilyn, along with their son, Thomas, and his wife, Sheryl, grows mostly corn on 8,000 acres.
"If farm program payments were making people rich, there would likely be more people waiting in line to farm," Corrin said.
The Environmental Working Group questions whether such subsidies amount to corporate welfare.
"If a farmer is out there expanding, we're completely supportive," Schubert said.
"The question is: At what point should taxpayers stop subsidizing a big business enterprise? At what point should you be able to stand on your own two feet?"