WASHINGTON - A prominent San Francisco patron of the arts, Constance Bowles -- heiress of an early California cattle baron, widow of a former director of UC Berkeley's Bancroft library and a resident of Pacific Heights -- was the largest recipient of federal cotton subsidies in the state of California between 2003 and 2005, collecting more than $1.2 million, according to the latest available data.
That is the way U.S. farm programs are designed to work. Five crops -- cotton, corn, wheat, rice and soybeans -- received 92 percent of the $21 billion in federal farm payments last year. The biggest payments go to the biggest farms.
That also is pretty much the way farm programs will continue to work for the next five years under mammoth legislation scheduled today for a House vote.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco has endorsed the new farm bill, produced by the House Agriculture Committee to run programs for the next five years, as a major reform because it limits annual payments to farmers who earn $1 million a year.
The income limit for a couple would actually be $2 million, because a husband and wife each could collect.
If the bill becomes law, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says the cap will affect just 3,100 farmers, assuming they do not use accounting tactics to reduce their taxable income. Actual payments to farmers would rise over the five years authorized by the bill. The bill is over budget, so Democratic leaders propose a $4 billion tax increase on U.S. subsidiaries of foreign companies to pay for it.
This year's farm bill has drawn extraordinary attention in the Bay Area and across the country, where a back-to-the-farm food movement has attracted such high-profile supporters as Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, the New York Democrat running for president.
The aim of the advocates is to link farmers directly with consumers to provide fresher food, including more fruits and vegetables in federal nutrition programs such as food stamps and school lunches. They contend that crop subsidies have fueled the industrialization and concentration of agriculture into giant agribusinesses and contribute to the nation's obesity epidemic by encouraging the use of corn sweeteners and vegetable oils in processed foods.
Pelosi is pushing for a quick House vote this week on the Agriculture Committee's bill to give rural Democrats -- especially those who won seats in GOP-dominated districts last year -- something to tout when they return home for the August congressional recess.
Pelosi owes her speakership to those new members. But most California farmers -- and most U.S. farmers -- do not grow the five subsidized crops and do not receive direct payments from the federal government. California fruit, nut and vegetable growers, who would get research and marketing aid under the new bill, mostly oppose crop subsidies and did not seek them.
Economists say the subsidies harm most farmers. That's because they lower crop prices, raise land prices and rents, and give subsidized farmers a financial advantage that has helped drive their neighbors out of business and keep young farmers from getting started.
Many farmers, and farm state politicians of both parties, oppose large payments. Rep. Ron Kind, D-Wis., Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, all want to limit payments to one-quarter the size Pelosi has endorsed in the House bill.
"When you say to the biggest farms in the country, 'The bigger you get, the more money you get from the government,' then the farm program effectively subsidizes the destruction of family farming," said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska. "Most people in rural America think that is bad policy."
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The big payments would continue while prices of subsidized crops are at or near record highs, fueled by the ethanol boom. The value of this year's giant corn crop -- which would almost cover the state of California in acreage -- is expected to reach $40 billion.
California's top subsidy recipient from 2003 to 2005, Bowles, 88, of San Francisco, collected the $1.2 million in mostly cotton payments through her family's 6,000-acre farm, the Bowles Farming Co., in Los Banos (Merced County). She could not be reached for comment.
Another family member, George "Corky" Bowles, who died in 2005, collected $1.19 million over the same period. George Bowles once ran the farm but lived on Telegraph Hill. A collector of rare books and 18th century English porcelain, he served as a director of the San Francisco Opera and a trustee of the Fine Arts Museums.
The farm is run by Phillip Bowles in San Francisco. Phillip Bowles was on vacation Tuesday and could not be reached. He told KGO television last week that he's no fan of subsidies, but if big cotton growers in Texas get them, so should he.
"Many of these businesses are getting 20 to 30 to sometimes 40 percent of their gross revenues directly from the government," Phillip Bowles told KGO. "I don't have a good explanation for that. Somebody else might, but it beats me."
Economists say they can find no rationale for the subsidies, which started in 1933 as temporary aid for small farmers devastated by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. Then, a quarter of Americans lived on farms. Today, less than 1 percent do -- so few that the Census Bureau quit counting.
"The programs are just outdated," said Daniel Sumner, director of the UC Agricultural Issues Center and a leading farm economist. "No one can think of a legitimate reason why we have these farm programs for a handful of crops in the United States.
"If the best the committee could do is say these payments are to help people in need, and we're going to define for farm legislation that somebody's in need if the family makes $2 million a year -- a million for the husband and a million for the wife -- that's a little strange. If these are really welfare programs for the needy, we don't normally cut those off at $1 million. It's more like $20,000."
Cotton ranks as the No. 1 subsidized crop in California. Federal data compiled by Environmental Working Group, an advocacy organization, shows that the state's cotton, rice and dairy farmers received more than $1 billion in federal support from 2003 to 2005. During the same period, about $62 million went to farm conservation and environmental projects in California.
Environmentalists have taken aim at farm subsidies this year because the farm programs are where the money -- and the land -- is.
About half of the continental United States is farmland. More than 150 million acres were enrolled in federal farm conservation programs in 2005, according to report by Stanford University's Woods Institute for the Environment.
"The environmental implications of U.S agricultural conservation policy ... are enormous," Craig Cox, director of the Soil and Water Conservation Society, wrote in the Stanford report.
Farm environmental programs now total $4 billion a year, far outstripping any other federal funding for private conservation. Environmentalists would like to see the crop subsidies also go to "green payments" to induce environmental protection for wildlife habitat, watersheds and the like.
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