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Farm subsidies as seen from the farm

A tractor pulls a corn planter in Luxemburg, Iowa.

TEXT OF INTERVIEW

Kai Ryssdal: Democratic leaders in the House are hustling to find the votes they need to pass the big farm bill that's on the floor this week — $286 billion over the next five years. A final headcount's been pushed to tomorrow, which gives lawmakers more time to wheel and deal over one of the most controversial items in the whole package: subsidies.

They've already cut payments to farmers making a million dollars a year or more. Which isn't very many of them. Maybe 10 or 15 percent. We went to the other end of the income spread to see what subsidies mean for smaller growers. We've reached Stephen Houston in Donalsonville, in south Georgia.

Mr. Houston, could you describe your farm for us?

Stephen Houston: Well, I rent all my land. I borrow almost 100 percent of what it takes to grow my crops every year — cotton, peanuts and wheat. I've got one tractor and a bunch of old, patched-up equipment. I've got a combine I do custom work with, and a semi-truck I try to use to help fill in the gaps and make ends meet.

Ryssdal: How much money do you get in subsidies from the government?

Houston: Year to year it varies, but I would have to say somewhere in the area of $30,000 a year.

Ryssdal: And what do you do with that money? Does it go into daily operating expenses on your farm?

Houston: Basically, it goes straight back to the bank to pay off the operating loan — the money that we borrow to grow the crops with. Mine does, anyway.

Ryssdal: And how much do you clear on your farm every year.

Houston: My income after depreciation has been anywhere from $5,000 to $15,000 . . .

Ryssdal: $5,000 to $15,000 a year.

Houston: Over the past four years it's averaged, you know, somewhere in that neighborhood.

Ryssdal: So, if that $30,000 you get from the government went away tomorrow, how hard would it be for you to keep going without that money?

Houston: Ah, it would be hard. I mean, no doubt about it, it's already, you know, about as tight as it can get. Just when you think it can't get any worse, it always seems to. So . . .

Ryssdal: Now, you're a person who gets money from the government. But what are your feelings on the farm bill itself?

Houston: My feelings on it, really, basically, is that it's grown into a huge dinosaur that is not serving the purpose that it's suppose to be there to serve.

Ryssdal: What do you think the purpose of these government subsidies is?

Houston: Well, you know, I would think the American public in general — and this is just what I think. But I would think they would want to pay for . . . They would want to foot the bill to keep a large enough number of farmers in business to make sure they've got a safe, plentiful, adequate supply of food.

Ryssdal: Would you be troubled — not in an economic sense, not in a personal finance sense — But would you be troubled for the future of farms in this country if subsidies went away?

Houston: No more troubled than I am now about the way all the money is going to the top — you know, the richest, what, 5, 10 percent.

Ryssdal: Mr. Houston, thank you for your time.

Houston: All right. Bye.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.

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