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Farm Bill's wasteful welfare program

Some aspects of American agriculture are quite odd. For example, to meet a farmer these days, you don't need to venture out to the hinterland. Thousands of our farmers are city slickers.

And they're really slick, for many of them neither plant nor harvest wheat, cotton, peanuts, or any crops at all. While relaxing in their often-luxurious urban nests, they till the government's ridiculous "direct payments" system, harvesting millions of dollars each year from taxpayers.

Earlier this year, the Environmental Working Group revealed that more than 18,000 people living in America's 54 largest cities pocketed about $24 million last year from the USDA's direct payment program.

New York City, for example, has 152 of these "farmers," San Francisco has 116, Chicago 393, Denver 821, Tampa 100, Tucson 328, and Houston 1,405. That's because the program makes payments not only to real farmers, but also to people who merely hold an ownership interest in farmland, whether or not any crops are raised on it and even if the city-dwelling recipient has never visited the place.

Where did this cockamamie payment scheme come from? Congress slipped it into the 1996 Farm Bill as a transition measure to wean farmers off subsidies. But it hasn't turned out to be very temporary.

Now, it looks like our gridlocked Congress is about to renew the direct payments program, even though it does nothing to help the majority of America's farm families.

Indeed, the bulk of the $5 billion paid out annually goes to the biggest spreads, including multimillion-dollar corporate operations.

Even if our Congress critters finally muster the political gumption to stop this absurdity, they intend to replace it with an even more bizarre crop insurance scam that's a guaranteed income program for multimillionaires, allowing them to keep tilling our public treasury. For more information go to www.ewg.org.

Jim Hightower, a radio talk-show host and author, is a former agricultural commissioner of Texas. info@jimhightower.com