* Payments would equal 3 percent of subsidies in 2010
* Green group says payments should go to farm families
* Senate farm leader says bigger question is budget cuts
By Charles Abbott
WASHINGTON, June 23 Some 90,000 people living
in U.S. cities pocketed $394 million in U.S. farm subsidies
last year, an environmental group said on Thursday, questioning
why absentee owners and investors deserve the cash.
The Environmental Working Group released the data just
before a Senate committee review of Agriculture Department
spending and while lawmakers try to rein in federal spending.
"It's simply unjustifiable" to send payments to absentee
owners, said Craig Cox of EWG. The group, which favors larger
spending on land stewardship, said reforms are needed to assure
the farm program is aimed at farm families.
Congress is in the early stages of an overhaul of U.S. farm
policy. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairwoman Debbie Stabenow
said a determining factor would be any budget cuts that
accompany an agreement on the federal debt by Congress and the
Farm subsidies are often listed as an area of agreement for
cuts, especially the $5 billion a year guaranteed in the
so-called direct payment. The direct payment accounts for the
bulk of farm program spending now due to high market prices.
Asked about subsidy reform, Stabenow told reporters,
"People don't bring that up to me much." She said, "The bigger
question is what comes out of deficit reduction talks."
Subsidy reform is a perennially divisive issue, pitting the
corn, wheat and soybean farmers of the U.S. Midwest and Plains
against cotton and rice growers in the South, and large
operators against small-farm advocates.
EWG said 90,000 people in 350 cites with a population above
100,000, from Anchorage, Alaska, to Yuma, Arizona, got $394
million in subsidies in 2010. It was equal to 3 percent of 2010
payments in an EWG database, which is built on USDA records.
Acting Undersecretary Michael Scuse, who oversees the farm
program, said city-dwellers are entitled to crop subsidies if
they are active in agriculture. People are eligible for
payments if they provide land, equipment or capital, or labor
USDA estimates it saved $200 million due to provisions in
the 2008 farm law that deny subsidies to the wealthiest
Americans and require payments to be tracked to an individual.
Small-farm activists say the limits are too lax. There is
effectively no limit on payments, they say, and it is easy to
claim payments even if there is little connection to a farm.
"It all comes back to 'management,'" said Ferd Hoefner of
the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition. He said some
farm subsidy recipients participate in a few telephone calls
and year and say it amounts to farm management.
(Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by David Gregorio)