Grassroots business

These crop farmers are finishing up last fall’s harvest. Most farmers planting corn in Rice County received on average $20 an acre in federal subsidies. It costs about $600 an acre to farm corn. (File photo)
These crop farmers are finishing up last fall’s harvest. Most farmers planting corn in Rice County received on average $20 an acre in federal subsidies. It costs about $600 an acre to farm corn. (File photo)

By: Jaci Smith, Regional Editor
Posted: Wednesday, May 26, 2010 1:00 am

Pretend you’ve decided to become a businessman to make your living. You have some start-up capital and assets to get going, but much more is needed, so you take out loans against those assets and your future profits.

You have a tried and true business plan, but there are many variables that affect it. Weather, labor, equipment and market forces that literally change each day buffet your attempts to stay afloat. And even though the demand is certain to be constant and the customer base — literally — is the world, there’s no steady growth, no predictability and no guarantees of success, even from year to year.

In general, unless you make at least $175,000 in sales every year, you don’t make a profit. In the industry you’ve chosen, the data over nearly a century shows that the rate of return on your assets and equity will be negative except for the largest of your brethren.

You are a farmer.

The numbers

Paul Liebenstein was No. 1 on the list of Rice County farmers receiving subsidies from the federal government, a fact that caught him entirely by surprise.

Liebenstein is the owner of Wolf Creek Dairy in Dundas and last year he received $86,340 from the federal government, according to USDA figures compiled by the Environmental Working Group, an organization that has created a website to draw attention to federal farm subsidies and seeks reform to them.

Farm subsidies are federal dollars paid to farmers to do one of two things: fill the gap between the market price (if it falls below a certain level) and “parity” for their commodity, or to make up the difference between the cost to farm a crop per acre and profitability. The federal government also subsidizes crop insurance for farmers and has other, smaller subsidy programs, such as for conservation.

EWG will tell you on their website that federal farm subsidies are not working, that it costs American taxpayers astronomical sums of money — $35 billion since 1995 — and that, most importantly, the vast majority of the money falls into the hands of the wealthiest farmers and not family farms.

“Despite claims of reform, many of the top subsidy recipients in this update are the same operations we’ve seen before,” wrote EWG President Ken Cook in his national analysis of the USDA data. “Six of the top 10 recipients of commodity payments in 2009 were also in the top 20 in both 2007 and 2008. In contrast to the public fury over billion-dollar bailouts of Wall Street banks, all 20 top recipients in 2009 received more than $1 million each, several with multi-million-dollar hauls. And this is only one year’s worth of corporate handouts that have gone on for decades.”

In Rice County, it would seem that Cook’s analysis holds true, according to an analysis done by the Daily News. The county received $9.4 million in federal farm subsidies in 2009, the latest year for which data is available, and ranks 48th among the state’s 87 counties in how much it received. The state as a whole ranks fourth in the nation, receiving nearly $900 million last year.

The top 10 percent of the 1,176 farmers who received subsidies took in nearly half — 49 percent — of all the money Rice County received. The average subsidy payment for those in the top 10 percent was $33,108, or $9,000 more than the median per capita income in the county, according to the U.S. Census.

But the numbers are where the similarities to Cook’s analysis ends.

The reality

After the passage of the 2008 farm bill, intended to equalize payments to all farmers big and small, the media was quick to analyze and find fault with the “reformed” subsidies system. The Wall Street Journal, New York Times and other large newspapers wrote in-depth stories on the law, largely concluding it failed to get the subsidies into the hands of the country’s family farms. Before the bill was signed into law, The Washington Post did a yearlong investigative project on subsidies with a title that said it all: “Harvesting Cash.”

The same was true earlier this month when EWG released its 2009 database. The headlines were the same: “Richest farms reap fattest subsidies.”

But in Rice County, not everything is as the EWG or some media claim, according to Daily News analysis. While it’s true that the top 10 percent of farmers received the most money, comparing that list to property records shows those in the top 10 percent also happen to be farming the most acres or milking the largest herds.

In fact, of the top 10 farms that received subsidies in 2009, none are considered “corporate” farms. All are owned by either one or several related members of the same family.

“I wonder how many people would be surprised to know the huge risks we take and the incredible stresses of long hours, huge debt loads, weather worries and the like that farmers face throughout their careers,” said Steve Albers. Albers farms crops in Dundas and last year was near the bottom half of those in the county receiving subsidy payments. He got $6,515 in 2009, according to USDA figures.

The Economic Research Service of the USDA puts out an annual report measuring the economic health of the family farm. It concludes what many farmers have known for years: Running a farm is the same as running a Main Street business, except there are far more variables beyond the “business” owner’s control – like the weather or a natural disaster.

Or a country’s culture, says Gene Kuntz.

Kuntz is a South Central College farm business management instructor. For years, Kuntz said, this country has had a “cheap food” policy. Rather than let market forces dictate, the federal government since as far back as the beginning of the 20th century determined that it’s more important to pay subsidies to farmers to keep food prices down than to let free market forces reign.

“We make it (food) cheaper than any other country in the world,” Kuntz said. “That, in essence, guarantees subsidies will be needed until we decide as a country to pay the same for food as other countries pay.”

EWG’s Cook says in his analysis that calling the subsidy payments a “bailout” is an insult to the term since the money doesn’t get to those who need it most — family farmers.

Not true, says Kuntz. He says without subsidies, what Cook thinks is happening now would actually be reality.

“Those payments keep family farms in existence,” he said. “Without them the ripple effect would be the elimination of the smaller farm units and the growth of larger ones.”

On the back 40

Liebenstein’s $86,000 federal subsidy went to pay part of his feed and labor bills. Wolf Creek Dairy has six full-time and six part-time employees.

But that same year overall he lost $300,000. He ended up having to take out a loan against his assets in order make his payroll and other costs. His only hope for future profits is if he makes enough to cover his expenses and his new loan.

Albers, who farms corn, beans, and cuts his own and his neighbors’ hay, said there have been years where the subsidy he received was his only profit. Last year his subsidy came to about $17 per tillable acre. The average countywide was about $20 per acre in crop subsidies.

But to farm that same spread would likely cost $600 an acre, Albers said.

“With the price of corn threatening now to go below $3, it’s not hard to see how it’s going to take a really good crop to come out,” Albers said.

The scale is what most people can’t relate to, said Kent Politsch, public affairs chief for the federal Farm Services Agency in Washington, D.C.

“The farmer is a small businessman,” Politsch said. “He operates his business on the scale of someone who owns three hardware stores. They both set up their business the same way — LLC — to get some tax breaks. But the farmer’s profit margin is far smaller than most.

“If you consider that businessman’s average income is about $40,000 and he hears that a farmer got $600,000 in payments, it seems really lucrative. But what no one talks about is that the farmer likely spent $700,000 to survive, and most of that money he put into the local economy. No other local businessman is doing that.”

Ag studies have shown that each dairy cow generates about $5,000 of impact on a local economy. Using that math, Liebenstein’s herd alone pours $2 million into Rice County’s economy. He supports implement dealers, bankers, and seed, fertilizer and chemical dealers. The families of his 12 employees depend on his farm in whole or in part for their income.

“There’s an old saying,” Liebenstein said. “It says ‘give all the money to the farmers because they’ll spend it all.’”

There’s no question that some may have figured out how to abuse the federal farm subsidy system, Politsch said. But for every one of those there are many others, like those on Rice County’s list of top recipients who are one bad crop, one low milk price year away from going broke.

“The last thing our economy needs to have happen is to have a farmer who’s producing the food we need to be lost,” Politsch said. “We lose farmers, we lose production, prices go up. That’s when we lose Main Street.”

—Reach Regional Editor Jaci Smith at 333-3133 or

WHAT ARE SUBSIDIES? A federal government “safety net” to agricultural producers to help them through the variations in agricultural production and profitability from year to year — due to variations in weather, market prices, and other factors.

HOW DOES IT WORK? The primary subsidy system has the following elements:

—Direct payments paid at a set rate every year regardless of conditions.

—Counter-cyclical payments triggered when market prices fall below certain thresholds.

—A revenue assurance program provides for overall profitability for a given crop.

—Marketing loans offer terms whereby farmers can realize gains through loan deficiency payments (LDPs) and commodity certificates.

—Disaster payments recoup large losses due to natural phenomena. The government subsidizes crop insurance to further insulate farmers from risk.


1. Paul Liebenstein, Dundas — $86,340

2. Metogga Lake Dairy LLC, New Prague — $85,099

3. George E Duban, Lonsdale — $82,298

4. Far Gaze Farms, Northfield — $79,334

5. Kuball Dairy Farm Llp, Waterville — $77,363

6. Douglas A Story, Kenyon — $77,219

7. Saemrow Dairy, Waterville — $76,898

8. James D. Duban, Montgomery — $63,893

9. Estrem Farms, Nerstrand — $59,624

10. Dennis L Tatge, Faribault — $54,681


• Stearns County took in more subsidy money in 2009 than any other county in the state, $30.4 million.

• The No. 1 subsidy in Rice County over the last 14 years is for corn crops, with 1,463 recipients taking in nearly $90 million.

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Federal Reserve


To see the database compiled from USDA data by the Environmental Working Group, click here.

Subsidy sells opportunities down the river

By MARK MULLER : Last update: May 25, 2010 – 5:45 PM

Say the federal government used federal dollars to take development opportunities away from Minnesota and instead create jobs in other countries.

Most of us would be fuming. Market forces working against Minnesota is one thing; the federal government facilitating foreign investment over local job creation is simply unacceptable.

Yet this scenario is just what’s happening through the subsidized export of Minnesota’s agricultural products. The federal government spends an estimated $100 million a year maintaining navigation on the Mississippi River system, which is primarily used to get crops such as corn and soybeans out to international ports. This funding maintains the series of locks and dams from Minneapolis to southern Illinois that create pools of water deep enough to support a 9-foot channel for the navigation industry.

How does this create investment elsewhere? The production of an agricultural commodity is just the first step in the processing that eventually produces food, materials and energy. It isn’t too exciting to think of Minnesota crops becoming the low-cost feed supplier of a Taiwan poultry operation. Why then should we encourage that processing to take place in other parts of the world rather than in job-creating industries in the Midwest?

Navigation industry proponents aren’t satisfied with their current $100 million a year subsidy. They are pushing for the federal government to not only pay the operation and maintenance costs, but to increase taxpayer subsidies for the construction and expansion of Mississippi River locks. Rather than the current 50-50 split of construction costs, the industry’s proposal, which has received little public attention, recommends that taxpayers put $270 million annually toward construction and the industry only $110 million.

When agricultural production is narrowed down to just a couple of crops, such as corn and soybeans, economic opportunities that provide a greater return are lost. This hurts Midwest farmers who have little choice but to grow these crops even when prices are lousy, and hurts rural communities that need economic development. Land locked up in corn and soybeans can’t be used for higher value production such as locally grown fruits and vegetables or grass-fed livestock, products for which consumers are willing to pay a premium.

A recent Iowa State University study found that an increased production of 28 fruit and vegetable crops in the Upper Midwest could create $882 million in additional farm sales and 9,300 new jobs.

Federal policies play a primary role in keeping Midwest agriculture less innovative than it should be. The farm bill drives down prices and reduces the financial risk of growing commodity crops such as corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton and rice. This encourages farmers to grow these crops — and grain buyers to trade and process these crops — at the expense of other opportunities.

Federal transportation policies fall into this same trap. With the farm bill encouraging corn and soybean production, policymakers apparently feel some responsibility for facilitating the export of these crops. Export subsidies, quite simply, are used to try to offset bad policy decisions in the agricultural economy, which have flooded the Midwest with cheap corn and soybeans, and to drive farmers off the land.

Farmers don’t export, and there’s scant evidence that farmers get better prices because of exports. It’s the grain companies that almost always reap the profits from this trade. So why, then, are we spending taxpayer dollars on navigation?

There are much better ways of investing in Minnesota agriculture. What if that $270 million were instead used to encourage business opportunities for the storage, processing and transportation of Minnesota-grown foods?

When you hear about proposals to expand navigation infrastructure, tell Congress to take a pass. If federal funds aren’t going to support the Minnesota economy, at least they shouldn’t work against it.

Mark Muller is director of the Minneapolis-based Food and Society Fellows program, Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.