They don’t milk cows or plant corn, but nearly 900 Philadelphians have collected federal farm subsidies totaling $3.2 million in the last 25 years.
Residents with addresses ranging from Center City to Chestnut Hill receive annual checks, often based on nothing more than their family connections to farms in states far afield from Pennsylvania, according to an Inquirer analysis of U.S. Department of Agriculture data obtained by two organizations: Environmental Working Group (EWG), a Washington, D.C., nonprofit and advocacy group, and American Transparency, an Illinois public charity.
Ever since the 1930s, government subsidies have been paid to growers to offset agricultural cost and risk. But under one arcane aspect of the program, money also is funneled to children, first cousins, nieces, and other relatives living far from the cabbage patch and pig pen.
All they have to say is that they’re “actively engaged in farming,” however remotely, by contributing ideas or planning. Their spouses, not connected to the farms in any way, are eligible for subsidies of their own too.
A city resident could claim he’s helping to manage a farm run by his brother in Iowa, said Chris Campbell, vice president of information technology at EWG, which advocates for healthier lives through a healthier environment. By calling Iowa and discussing the operation, the Philadelphian may qualify for a subsidy, Campbell said, adding, “He never has to put his butt on a tractor.
“It’s not illegal, but is it fair to taxpayers? There’s not a lot of strings attached to getting government farm subsidy money.”
The Bella Vista/Queen Village zip code (19147) has drawn the most money — more then $500,000 since 1995, according to EWG.
In that same period, a 74-year-old man in Old City has collected $201,764.19 in subsidies from corn, sorghum, and oat crops grown in Thayer County, Neb., and Republic County, Kan. — the most any Philadelphia individual has garnered, the EWG database showed. He hung up on a reporter asking for comment.
The property that accrued the most subsidy dollars for Philadelphians — $368,776.57 since 1995 — was listed as Hunt Johnson Farms Inc., 805 acres in Liberty, Ind., owned by four generations of one family and sold in November for $6.08 million. A Fairmount man is the local connection to the farm. He could not be reached.
The Government Accounting Office, a nonpartisan agency that works for Congress, has reported that farming operations “have no limit” on the potential number of family members qualifying for payments. And the USDA considers 98% of all farms to be family farms — meaning the majority of the business is owned by the principal operator, who’s responsible for day-to-day decisions, and by the operator’s relatives.
That’s how some 20,000 non-farmer residents in the country’s 50 largest cities received subsidies in 2017, the National Taxpayers Union found. Between 2015 and 2017, around $626 million went to “city slicker” recipients in urban areas with populations exceeding 250,000, according to American Transparency.
Those numbers likely have risen in the last two years, as the Trump administration has expanded farm subsidies in the wake of trade wars with other countries. Total payouts of $14 billion in 2018 shot up to $22.5 billion last year, distributed among approximately two million individuals and entities.
Subsidies include not only direct payments but also compensation for the cost of crop insurance taken out to cover losses in yields, or declines in revenue. The most subsidized crops are corn, soy, wheat, cotton, and peanuts.
Proponents contend that subsidies keep farmers afloat, ensuring America’s food supply and buttressing its agricultural tradition. Critics condemn subsidies as antiquated forms of corporate welfare disbursed to mostly rich farmers and their relatives, whether agriculture is declining or booming.
“Taxpayers don’t pay car insurance for Uber drivers,” said Daniel Sumner, a University of California agricultural economist and chief USDA economist under President George H.W. Bush. “Why do they do it for corn? All businesses have risks.”
Officials at the USDA and the American Farm Bureau Federation, a lobbying group and insurance company, did not return calls for comment.
Kirk Smothers, 50, who lives in Mount Airy and is the head of school of Delaware Valley Friends School in Paoli, received $45,568 in farm subsidies between 1998 and 2019, data collected by EWG shows.
Smothers, who grew up in Boulder and Littleton, Colo., said that local tenant farmers now work his family’s farm in the eastern part of the state. “I don’t drive a tractor, but I do get subsidies,” he said. Without specifying an amount, Smothers said he pays for supplies and other items.
He declined to say how much money the wheat and corn farm makes, or how big it is, indicating that the number of acres would sound like a lot to Pennsylvanians, but that the soil can’t compare to Mid-Atlantic dirt.
“The subsidies are intended to make it so family farms can survive,” said Smothers, who added that he gives to antihunger charities in Philadelphia. “Farming is challenging.”
William Leonard, 82, a retired attorney who lives on Rittenhouse Square, received $158,310 in subsidies between 1995 and 2018 for not growing wheat on 155 acres of farmland he owns in his native western Oklahoma.
“As part of a conservation program, I allow grass to grow on the land to keep it from blowing away,” Leonard said. Though the grass has to be cut, the cost is negligible, he added, because cattle owners who use the land for grazing maintain it.
“I understand criticism of subsidies, but conserving land is important,” Leonard said. Receiving checks “is justifiable in the same way getting Social Security is: government providing programs for people.”
Another Philadelphian, who did not want to be identified, said he also gets paid to not grow crops on 43 of his 90 acres in northeast Pennsylvania.
The man, who received nearly $60,000 in subsidies between 2005 and 2018, said, “I don’t see a problem with that.”
But, he stressed, there’s a difference between his receiving stipends and low-income Americans getting food stamps, now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP. “I do see a problem with anybody who doesn’t work getting money," he said.
Farm subsidies are authorized by the Farm Bill, the same legislation that enables SNAP distribution. Both programs are administered by the USDA.
Funded at $68 billion a year, SNAP goes to 39 million people, who receive an average of $127 per person, per month. Most are disabled, children, or elderly; among the rest, around 75% have worked within a year, said Kathy Fisher, policy director of the Greater Philadelphia Coalition Against Hunger. Of all SNAP recipients, 67% get food stamps for less than two years, Fisher said, citing a study.
While growing the farm subsidies, the Trump administration is planning to remove 700,000 low-income people from SNAP rolls nationwide by April, including 38,000 in Philadelphia.
That riles some critics.
“Will we spend public dollars for poverty, or some really large farm?” asked Joe Glauber, senior research fellow at the Washington-based International Food Policy Research Institute. He was chief economist for the USDA under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. "I’m surprised this isn’t getting more attention.”
Subsidy payments are based on acreage: the more acres, the more money a farm gets, said Sumner, the agricultural economist. Because richer people own the bigger farms, he continued, “almost all subsidies go to relatively wealthy, white people.”
According to the conservative Heritage Foundation, which denigrates subsidies as the "antithesis of conservative principles,” 10% of farmers get 70% of farm subsidies. And “they’re the wealthy ones,” a 2018 foundation report reads.
SNAP dollars are tightly held compared with farm subsidies. While a married Philadelphia couple will lose SNAP benefits if their annual income exceeds about $26,000, a husband and wife who own a farm can receive as much as $125,000 each in subsidies, as long as their yearly combined income doesn’t surpass $1.8 million, according to federal rules.
SNAP carries a stigma, and Americans perceive a cultural difference between “farmers getting subsidies vs. people getting 'welfare,’ a tainted word," said sociologist Judith Levine, director of the Temple University Public Policy Lab.
Deborah Weinstein, executive director of the Coalition on Human Needs in Washington, said it’s a “gruesome inequity that [USDA Secretary] Sonny Perdue warns low-income Americans not to perpetuate SNAP as ’a way of life’ while these farm subsidies go to people for 30 years who have distant connections to a farm.”
Of course, not every farmer is well-off: Farm bankruptcies increased from 500 in 2018 to 625 last year, said Montana State University agricultural economist Vincent Smith. “But that’s a tiny fraction out of two million farms,” he said. “The presumption that all farmers are poor is horse----."
The median household income of farmers is significantly higher than that of Americans overall — roughly $76,000 vs. $63,000 — Smith said: "Just 2% of farm households fall below the poverty line. Compare that to 25% poverty in Philadelphia.”
Ultimately, critics say, the subsidy program may need to be reined in. As an example, one expert pointed to the efforts of Sen. Charles Grassley (R., Iowa), who’s working to change a USDA guideline that considers a farmer’s estate to be “actively engaged” in farming for up to two years after the farmer has died.
It’s important to remember that not all farmers want subsidies, and that many receive SNAP benefits themselves, said Wisconsin-based Jim Goodman, board president of the National Family Farm Coalition.
The idea that subsidies go to the bigger farms and to people in Philadelphia who are not farmers “is distressing,” Goodman said.
"They all make money off these programs.”