Universities, government agencies receiving taxpayer-funded farm aid
URBANA, Ill. (AP) – When it comes to harvesting subsidy checks from the federal government, few farms in this state are doing better than the University of Illinois.
Agriculture Department records show the state’s flagship university and its foundation got $710,000 last year from a network of federal subsidy programs meant to protect the agriculture industry from the perils of volatile commodity markets.
An AP review of $27 billion worth of subsidy checks sent out in fiscal year 2000 shows the university is not the only government or educational institution collecting hefty payments.
More than 1,200 cities, schools, prisons and universities combined to collect at least $23 million in farm aid. In some cases, government or university farms were among the top recipients in their states because they did not have to abide by the payment caps that apply to privately owned farms.
The Montana Department of Natural Resources took in $5.4 million in subsidies for crops grown on state trust land. Montana’s constitution sets aside land in each township for the state to generate revenue to support public schools.
Montana sharecrops much of that land, splitting the crop with tenant farmers at harvest. So, just like any other farm, the state is eligible for aid on its crops.
”It goes directly to the schools, which is certainly a beneficial purpose,” said Dave Mousel, supervisor of the Montana division that oversees the agricultural ground.
Such explanations were common among college and government recipients.
Dennis Gehrt, the University of Illinois’ endowment farm manager, said he sees nothing wrong if the money goes to agriculture-related programs.
”We don’t want to own large chunks of Illinois farmland, but these endowments support good causes,” Gehrt said. ”It supports the mission of a public school.”
Critics said that while farm policy does not specifically preclude government bodies or educational institutions from collecting checks, the program was never meant to prop up those kinds of farms.
”By what possible criteria does that make sense to provide that kind of subsidy?” said Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, which has published several reports attacking the crop subsidy system.
”I’m sure they say they do wonderful things, but there has to be another way to support those purposes and direct this money to the people who really need it – farmers,” Cook said.
More than 200 colleges and universities, many of them taxpayer-funded institutions, followed Illinois’ lead. They collected a combined $6.3 million in subsidies on research plots and other land last year. Prison systems in at least 14 states got subsidy payments for crops tended by convicts.
Louisiana Prison Enterprises is charged with cutting the cost of incarcerating criminals, and officials there said crop subsidies help them do that. Prison Enterprises runs several for-profit industries, where inmates are kept busy making products the state sells to offset its corrections budget.
That includes farms, where prisoners toil for pennies an hour growing crops. The state says its farming business generated about $10 million in sales for prison enterprises last year.
To that, the agency added about $231,000 in crop subsidies.
”It would be foolish not to do that,” said director Charles Kleinpeter. ”It’s very difficult to farm profitably in any environment, but we have expenses that private sector farmers don’t have because of the security concerns and work schedules.”
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