Farm Programs Rain Cash on Urban Billionaires, the Dead

As the Senate debates a five-year, $286 billion agriculture-subsidy extravaganza, consider the heartwarming rhetoric about saving family farms. Who ever imagined such families included the Rockefellers?

As the Environmental Working Group’s ( priceless Farm Subsidy Database reveals, philanthropist Mark Rockefeller received $228,350 in conservation subsidies between 2001 and 2005 for his Idaho farm. His brother, banking legend David Rockefeller, scored $29,615, thanks to his Hudson Valley farm.

Edgar Bronfman, Sr., former CEO of the now-swallowed Seagram spirits company, distilled $17,455 in taxpayer-funded farm subsidies between 2003 and 2005.

Manhattan, it turns out, is farm country. The Rockefellers and Bronfman are just three of the 562 New Yorkers EWG identified as urban farmers who Washington supported between 2003 and 2005. These New Yorkers included:

*Nevitt Nugent Jenkins: $1,647
*Brock Seawell: $2,939
*Leonard “Lipstick Mogul” Lauder: $3,015
*Grant Thornbrough: $29,523
*Norman Champ III: $127,114

*Cordelia Trost enjoyed $7,261 in corn, wheat, and soybean subsidies between 1995 and 2005. Although we both live in the 10003 Zip Code, I have yet to glimpse either her tractor or crop duster in our East Village habitat.

Urban farmers thrive beyond Gotham. California’s biggest agricultural welfare queen is Constance Bowles Peabody, 88. Between 2003 and 2005, Uncle Sam sent this resident of San Francisco’s posh Pacific Heights community $1,210,865, mainly in cotton subsidies. Her late brother, George, received $1,190,024 during those years. He also was a director of the San Francisco Opera and a distinguished collector of antique British porcelain.

“They still mail us a check every year for $40,000 — for something,” Mrs. Bowles’ son, Philip, who runs the family’s 13,000-acre farm, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “I have no idea what it is.”

EWG discovered 529 urban farmers in Los Angeles, including 82 in Beverly Hills 90210, who harvested $2,857,159 from Uncle Sam between 2003 and 2005. The sands of Miami Beach proved fertile for 13 farmers who cultivated $126,754. And in Washington, D.C. itself, $3,140,170 in USDA checks barely traveled to reach their 533 recipients.

Patrician planters aside, one need not be alive to receive farm subsidies. The estate of beloved comedian Jack Benny collected $18,120 in disaster subsidies in 2005, 31 years after his death. EWG identified 918 estates that inherited federal farm largesse.

The USDA “cannot be assured that it is not making improper payments to deceased individuals,” the Government Accountability Office concluded July 24. While USDA allows posthumous disbursements for up to two years, GAO found that between 1999 and 2005, USDA paid 69,120 individuals who had been dead at least three years. It also funded 32,832 Americans who had been dead seven years, or more.

But being a human, even an expired one, is no requirement to gobble farm gravy.

*MeadWestvaco, which generated $6.17 billion in net sales in 2005, reaped $36,358 in farm pork between 2003 and 2005, including $35,058 from the Conservation Reserve Program, which pays farmers not to grow crops. Fittingly enough, a grassy median bisects Park Avenue, right outside the Manhattan offices from which MeadWestvaco doesn’t farm.

*The East Village-based National Audubon Society absorbed $370,043 in wheat, corn, cotton, and even tobacco subsidies between 1995 and 2005.

*America’s fourth largest farm-aid recipient is not some rugged farmer in overalls and a straw hat atop his sandy hair. In fact, it is Arkansas’ Department of Corrections, which locked up $1,966,597 in government greenbacks between 2003 and 2005. This included $278,304 in “Total Storage” payments.

Heritage Foundation fiscal affairs analyst Brian Riedl calculates that these boondoggles cost a typical American family $322 in taxes annually. Farm programs often hike crop prices, artificially boosting grocery bills.

The entire farm program is an internationally embarrassing, jaw-droppingly profligate, hopelessly unfocused system of fiscal promiscuity. It defies explanation and now threatens to vacuum another $286 billion from Americans’ already weary wallets.

“Those of us in farm country don’t know about the big city, and we’re not about to tell [editorial writers] what to do. But [they] don’t have a clue about agriculture, and they should keep out of our business,” Rep. Collin Peterson (D – Minnesota), House Agriculture Committee Chairman, has said. “We’d all be better off.”

Let’s make a deal, Congressman: Keep out of our pockets, and we’ll keep out of farming.