King Corn

Santa Fe County's farm subsidies are all in the family

When it comes to federal farm subsidies, New Mexico—with a mere $76 million to Texas’ $1.5 billion last year—isn’t exactly raking it in.

But in both states, as in the rest of the nation, the same trends apply: A vast majority of federal farm subsidies are going to a few top farmers growing a handful of staple crops (corn, rice, wheat, etc.).

Even in Santa Fe County, more than half of the subsidies go to one family for one thing—corn. King corn.

Sam King, the nephew of the late former Gov. Bruce King, has been farming since he was a kid. Together with his cousin Bill—Bruce King’s son and the brother of New Mexico Attorney General Gary King—Sam King grows feed corn and alfalfa on King Farms, an approximately 8,000-acre tract near Stanley. King Farms consistently brings in thousands of dollars in federal farm subsidies, making it one of the highest-subsidized farms in the county.

King isn’t the only one in his family who has done well by the federal government. Over the past 15 years, the four farms and ranches belonging to his relatives have received 57 percent of the federal farm subsidies coming into Santa Fe County—most of them for growing corn.

Every year, the United States Department of Agriculture doles out billions of dollars in federal farm subsidies according to the requirements of the federal Farm Bill. (Congress is supposed to pass a new Farm Bill every five years; the last was in 2008.)

A corn subsidy, for instance, is then divided into several types of payments. Some are price supports, to be paid only if the price of corn drops below a certain threshold. Some are for loan deficiency, and there are separate subsidies for disaster mitigation. Finally, there are “direct payments”—the proverbial check in the mail.

“Direct payments are the most egregious,” Don Carr, a senior policy and communications advisor at the Environmental Working Group, which produces a farm subsidy database, tells SFR. “Those checks go out every year no matter what. You’re doing good, you’re doing bad—you get the check. You might not even be growing anything.”

King, however, says he’s producing more than he used to.

“It’s to pay the bills,” he says. “Milk’s cheap, so the dairies aren’t paying us as good. The corn price is not as good as it was 35 years ago—isn’t that crazy?”

He also says his subsidies—just under $22,000 in 2009 (and all in the form of direct payments)—are a drop in the bucket for a farm with revenues and expenditures in the millions.

“Subsidies never helped us, percentage-wise,” King tells SFR.

Still, critics say King and his family have a distinct advantage over their less-subsidized counterparts.

“The federal Farm Bill doesn’t really benefit small growers at all,” Sarah Noss, executive director of the Santa Fe Farmers Market Institute, tells SFR. Since small, local farmers—especially if they grow fruit or vegetables—are often unsubsidized, Noss says, they end up having to sell their products for higher prices.

Carr says that can ultimately force them out of business.

“The big farmer has a mass of capital, financed by the American taxpayer, that eventually will help him buy out the smaller neighbor,” Carr says. “So the big guys get bigger, and the small guys go away.”

Noss also notes that subsidizing commodities like corn—for corn-fed cattle, as in King’s case, or for processed foods—has negative health implications.

“There’s a general feeling among our farmers, but also nationally, that the way our government subsidizes food isn’t really healthy for the environment or for people,” Noss says. “The health statistics are showing that subsidies are actually killing people.”

Mark Winne, the author of Closing the Food Gap and a member of the Santa Fe Food Policy Council, says the federal subsidy system is not only unhealthy, but also unreasonable. If farmers receive direct payments regardless of how much they produce, Winne says, there’s little incentive to improve production: A larger supply will only drive prices down.

“That’s not a logical farm policy, and it’s not the best way to insure against the unpredictability of farming,” Winne says.

King seems just as unsatisfied.

“I think we ought to just be on a free-market system,” King says, “if the government stayed out of it.”

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