Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Meet the Klamath River Basin’s Irrigation Elite

KlamBlog has been criticized for identifying the group of irrigators who receive water via the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project as The Irrigation Elite. One critic – Deal promoter and commercial salmon fishermen representative Glen Spain – recently accused KlamBlog of “demonizing” folks who are “family farmers”.

The image of the family farmer toiling away in the fields with dirt under his fingers is carefully promoted by the Agricultural Industry which – as per the recently released Census of Agriculture - continues to be more dominated each year by very large, corporate farms. The number of farms in the US has reversed and is going up because of an increase in retiree and other small farms that sell less than $1,000 in farm product each year. Meanwhile the number of very large farms, the value of agricultural land and the income generated from those large farms continues to increase as well while medium sized farms - those we usually think of as "family farms" - continues to decline. Many of the corporate farms are also (technically) family farms; they are owned by corporations comprised of one or more family members. They are “family farms” in the same sense that DuPont is a family company.

Irrigation Elite mansion - and message - in the Lower Lost River Basin

But maybe the Klamath Basin is different. Maybe within the federal Klamath Project, farmers are struggling to survive. To investigate further – and to find out if Glen Spain’s critique is justified – we’ve done a bit of research. The income and profits of farms – like any other private business – are not public information. Payments received from the federal government, however, are public and are available from the US Department of Agriculture.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) has obtained the information and placed it in a searchable database. We used that database to look at payment of taxpayer funds to leaders of the two principle political organizations based in the Klamath River Basin which represent agricultural interests:

           •    The Family Farm Alliance (FFA) is a national organization based in Klamath Falls which lobbies the federal government on behalf of agricultural interests. 
           •    The Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA) is a local organization also based in Klamath Falls. It represents irrigation interests which obtain water from the Bureau of Reclamation’s Klamath Project.

What we found is presented and summarized below.

There are three main categories of payments to farmers and farm corporations which are financed with federal taxpayer funds:

•    Payments for certain commodities including rice, barley, corn, wheat and cotton
•    Payments received when a federal disaster is declared. Drought declarations are political decisions which farm organizations like FFA and KWUA lobby to have politicians declare.
•    Payments received for participation in Farm Bill Conservation Programs like the Conservation Reserve Program and EQIP. These programs have been regularly criticized by US Inspector General reports and others ( for high levels of “waste, fraud and abuse”. In other words, Farm Bill Conservation Programs are regularly and persistently not delivering the promised conservation benefits.

The level of federal payments received is only part of farm business income. Nevertheless, the level of payments received gives a clear indication of whether a farmer/farm corporation is small and struggling or large and benefitting from government largess at the expense of taxpayers.

Here’s what we found: 

Family Farm Alliance
Federal Subsidies to Board of Directors Members (1995-2009)

Member Name         Business Name         Residence      Total Fed. Subsidies ($)

Harvey Bailey            Harvey Bailey            Reedley, CA                  $83,639                   
Roberta Bailey                                                                              $73,246
Judith Bailey                                                                                 $68,481

Sandy Denn -             Snow Goose Frms      Willows, CA               $2,103,455

Daniel Errotabere,      T.Errotabere Rchs    Riverdale, CA          $2,894,490

Bill Kennedy, Ch.      Lost River Ranch        K Falls,  OR                  $ 38,944

Chris                         Circle G Farms
                                 Hurd Fm Liv Trust     Firebaugh, CA           $ 829,355

Pat O’Toole, Prs.       Ladder Livestock        Savery, WY               $ 89,466

Ron Rayner               A Tumbling T Rchs     Goodyear, AZ         $ 8,802,838

Mark Ricks, 1VP      Garvin Ricks                Felt, ID                     $194,605      

Don Schwindt                                               Cortez, CO               $78,080

Tom Schwartz                                              Bertrand, NB    (too many recipients)  

                      TOTAL FOR ALL FOUND:     $15,256,599

Klamath Water Users Association
Federal Subsidies to Board of Directors Members (1995-2009)

Name                    Business                     Residence               Total Subsidy ($)   
Steve Kandra         Steve Kandra Farms    Siskiyou Co., CA         $412,448    

Jason Chapman    (James Chapman)        Klam Co., OR               $299,741    

Gary Wright         (James R Wright)        K Falls, OR                   $28,243 

Mike Byrne         Bl Ranch Inc                 Klam Co, OR                $539,162     

Mike Byrne
         Rbt A Byrne Co            Malin, OR                     $104,323
Luke Robison      Thomas A Robison         K Falls, OR                    $236,338    

Rob Crawford     Crawford Farms Inc     Tulelake, CA                $1,107,335    

Bob Flowers       Robert & J Flowers       Klamath Falls, OR          $618,733     

Bill Kennedy       Lost R Ranch                 K Falls, OR                    $38,944    

Ed Bair               Bair Farms Inc            Klamath Falls, OR          $359,578
John, A.&                                                                                 $238,649
Paul Bair                                                                                  $214,491 
Carl Sconce        Sconce Farm Co
            Merrill, OR                   $693,393   
Tricia Hill          Wm B. Hill                    Klam Co., OR                 $135,501  

Scott Sues          Seus Family Farms        K Falls, OR                     $290,819    

           TOTAL            $5,115,409   

The Irrigation Elite Leaders
Income from American Taxpayers: 1995-2009
(Source: EWG Farm Subsidies Database – USDA Government Data)

Organization               Board Members           BOD Member             BOD Members:
                                   Total Subsidies            Highest Subsidy           Average Subsidy
Klamath Water              $5,115,409                   $1,107,335                   $393,493

Users Assoc.                                                  Rob Crawford
                                                                     Crawford Farms

Family Farm                  $15,256,599              $ 8,802,838                    $1,552,660

Alliance                                                         Ron Rayner
                                                               Tumbling T Ranches   

The information presented above is not a complete listing of taxpayer-financed benefits obtained by these individuals/businesses. There are a host of methods by which agricultural producers are subsidized by the government which are not in the EWG database. To give just one example, during the “water crisis” of 2001 the Tule Lake Irrigation District was given 7 huge wells, pumps and pipes courtesy of California taxpayers. The District now uses those pumps and wells to sell water to the federal government. That income benefits those irrigators who are members of Tulelake Irrigation District (TID). TID is represented on the Klamath Water Users Association Board of Directors.

To put this in perspective, here’s some national data on these government payments to agriculture from the EWG web site

          •    62% of farmers in United States did not collect subsidy payments.

          •    The top 10% of farmers/farm corporations receiving payments collected 74% of all subsidy payments amounting to $157.7 billion between 1995 and 2009 – an average of $29,658 taxpayer dollars per farmer/farm corporation per year.

          •    The bottom 80% of those receiving payments received an average of $572 per year between 1995 and 2009.

Based on this data, KlamBlog concludes that there is indeed an Irrigation Elite in the Klamath River basin and nationally. The leaders of the two principle Ag lobby organizations based in the Klamath River Basin – the Klamath Water Users Association and the Family Farm Alliance – are members of that Irrigation Elite. They rake in substantial taxpayer funds each year.

As spelled out elsewhere on KlamBlog , some of these same “family farmers” will be the beneficiaries of a variety of new subsidies worth at least half a billion dollars if the KBRA Water Deal is endorsed and funded by Congress.

The end of the Family Farm

How did it happen that a few very wealthy farmers/farm corporations control so much Klamath River Basin land and water and still receive sizable cash payments courtesy of federal taxpayers?

Some of the reason is general and not limited to agriculture. In today’s USA the largest corporations pay no taxes but instead receive payments from the IRS. When you own the government that’s what happens. But the history of farming within the boundaries of the federal Klamath Project is also a big factor. Here’s a thumbnail sketch of the relevant history:

When the Reclamation Law was passed in the early 1900s Congress placed a 160 acre limit on the amount of land that could be irrigated with water developed by the federal government. As time went on, some irrigators avoided this limitation by placing land under the names of various family members and trusts. Still a family farmer could make a living on 160 irrigated acres and many did not seek to grow bigger.

In the 1980s this changed. No longer was it possible to make a living in the Klamath River Basin on 160 irrigated acreages. Klamath Project and other farmers either needed to get bigger or go out of business. The 160 acre limit had already become meaningless and was thrown out. The Reclamation Reform Act of 1982 raised the acreage limitation to 960 acres and ended the residency requirement for farmers. Absentee owners can now receive federally developed water as well as the various farm subsidies financed by taxpayers.

What then transpired on the Klamath Project has been a tragedy for those older farmers who could not get bigger. These folks were forced to lease their land to those who had already used various family members to get control of larger acreages. Furthermore land leasing rates were driven down because almost 30,000 acres of refuge land was leased to farmers each year. The Irrigation Elite got rich and built mansions while the older family farmers struggled to survive on low land lease payments.

At the present time, a small number of irrigators control and farm vast acreages within the Klamath Project…much of it through leasing. The leases comes with irrigation water. These are the same farmers and farm corporations who receive the bulk of taxpayer financed subsidies. They are also – for the most part – the same irrigators who sit on the board of the Klamath Water Users Association (KWUA).

In recent years, however, KWUA has added a couple of non-irrigators to its board.

Curt Mullis retired from the US Fish & Wildlife Service in 2008. Before retirement he was responsible for developing and monitoring implementation of the Biological Opinion for Klamath Project impacts on Kuptu and Tsuam – two species of suckers listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Kuptu and Tsuam are not recovering and – it appears to KlamBlog – that the US Fish and Wildlife Service did little during Mullis’ tenure to promote recovery. The Lost River Basin, for example, is a highly polluted river in which the sucker species which shares a name with the River – the Lost River Sucker – continues to hang on at low numbers.

Joe Hobbs is a member of the Klamath Tribes and a former chairman of that tribe. The water rights settlement between the Irrigation Elite and the Klamath Tribes is at the center of the KBRA Water Deal.

Neither Curt Mullis not Joe Hobbes have received taxpayer-financed government payments; we don’t know whether or not they are engaged in farming.


Anonymous said...

So how do small family farms survive in such a market in todays world with input costs, ie: fuel,labor,insurance,crop inputs just to name a few continue to rise out of reach for a 100 acre ranch/farm?

Felice Pace said...

Small farmers survive by taking jobs - or having their spouses take jobs - off the farm. According to the latest Census of Agriculture most small farmers have outside income.

On the Klamath Project small farmers mostly lease out their land to the big guys. If there was less public land to lease these private lessors would get a better price for rental of prime land with water.

Anonymous said...

I went to school with Scott Seus. He was always against welfare. He berated people in welfare lines. Guess he has no problem with corporate welfare.