Rice farm one of top recipients of federal aid

Monday, September 10, 2001

ESSEX, Mo. -- At Missouri Delta Farms, airplanes sow rice seed from the sky and a private attorney helps grow the farm's revenues by reaping as much federal aid as possible.

In both respects, the farm is a success.

Nice rice combined with $6.8 million in federal subsidies last year allowed the farm to do just fine, attorney and farm spokesman Robert Serio said without elaborating on the farm's finances.

The corporate farm, spanning at least two counties in Southeast Missouri, is the largest farm subsidy recipient in the state and the sixth largest in the nation.

The farm also is an example of a national trend.

Almost two-thirds of the $27 billion in federal farm subsidies last year went to just 10 percent of America's farm owners, including numerous multi-million-dollar corporations.

Because some federal rules base subsidy payments on farm acreage, rather than financial need, the largest farms often get the largest paychecks.

Missouri Delta Farms, for example, received nearly five times as much money as the state's next largest farm subsidy recipient, DDAB Farms, also located in the Bootheel.

All told, the U.S. Department of Agriculture sent more than 1.1 million checks to Missouri farm owners and operators, totaling more than $975 million in aid during the federal fiscal year that ran from Oct. 1, 1999, through Sept. 30, 2000.

Most aid was intended to keep farmers from going under when the price they got for crops was not enough to pay their bills.

But the checks ranged from a mere penny sent to a Sedalia man to the $6.8 million accumulated through 73 payments to Missouri Delta Farms.

'Keeping us afloat'

Lowell Mohler, who in January was named director of the state Department of Agriculture, received $8,643 in federal aid for farms he owns in Cole and Holt counties.

For Mohler, the federal money was not essential to his survival. But for some full-time farmers, it was.

"That's all that's keeping us afloat," said Howard Ratliff, who grows corn and soybeans near Salisbury in north-central Missouri. "Without the subsidy, there would be absolutely zero profit."

Ratliff's $299,153 in federal subsidies was the largest amount listed for an individual in Missouri. But that figure is deceiving. Glen and Linda McElwain of Butler, for example, each received $257,583, giving them a household total of at least $515,156. Other families also had subsidies ascribed to several different individuals.

But nothing came near the millions received by Missouri Delta Farms.

"That's kind of bad, it really is, but that's kind of the way it's going," Ratliff said.

Corporate farms, which sometimes are run by a single family, received $1 of every $4 in federal farm subsidies in Missouri.

Yet what is commonly described as a corporate farm often is the modern day family farm, said Serio, a Clarendon, Ark., attorney who represents about 300 farms nationwide, including Missouri Delta Farms and the nation's fifth largest subsidy recipient, Tyler Farms of Helena, Ark.

Need 3,000 acres

Serio's job is to help farms get as much federal money as possible while complying with all government regulations.

To make a living farming, most families need a minimum of 3,000 acres -- a far cry from the 300 or so acres that many people have in mind when they picture a family farm, he said.

"Those small farmers, as far as I'm concerned, are just getting in the way of the guy who's trying to make a living farming," Serio said. "They're not committed to the farm operation, they're not buying the equipment, they're not putting the investment into the operation that you normally would for a business. ... In a sense they're not true farmers."

Missouri Delta Farms is comprised of about 40 partners, but almost all of the land -- about 19,000 acres in Stoddard and New Madrid counties -- is owned by Gaylon Lawrence, Serio said. Lawrence did not return home telephone calls from The Associated Press and his office referred calls to Serio.

Lawrence's farms use an unusual technique to grow rice.

Typically, rice is planted, then the field is flooded. But Missouri Delta Farms first floods the fields while germinating seed in special water tanks. Then the farm uses airplanes to drop seeds in the flooded fields.

Rice acres attract a higher federal subsidy than corn or soybeans because of the higher cost of raising the grain.

Dale Farming Co., another of Serio's clients, farms almost 30,000 acres of mostly corn and soybeans near Ridgeway in northern Missouri. Yet that company received just $345,907 in federal subsidies last year.

Even that would sound like a lot to Lowell Eaton, a retired educator and part-time farmer who received a 13-cent federal subsidy check. Eaton owns about 20 acres of corn and soybeans in Harrisburg in central Missouri.

So slight was Eaton's payment that he can't even recall whether he cashed the check. But he sympathizes with the farmer who actually depends on the federal subsidies.

"They can't go out there and put in a crop without some help," he said. "I wish they didn't have to do it that way."

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