Dennis Tencleve farms more than 4,000 wheat and sorghum acres near Wellington.
From 2000 to 2011, according to an estimate compiled by the Environmental Working Group, he received $117,417 in federal subsidies for his operation.
Some of those subsidies helped cover weather-related disasters. Others provided production flexibility and covered commodity loans.
Some, though, were direct payments — government checks he got regardless of the price of wheat or the status of his crop.
Like many of the farmers in Sumner County, the 58-year-old Tencleve understands direct payments and other federal farm assistance seem at odds with the predominantly conservative political philosophy in south-central Kansas. But he also believes he would be foolish to pass up Washington’s help.
“If we’re going to bust our butt, and all these people are on welfare that won’t work and we put in all the hours we do in farming and feeding the country, why not get some of that money?” he asked.
That view helps explain why federal taxpayers sent nearly $3.2 million in direct payments to Sumner County’s farmers in 2010, despite soaring prices and growing land values. That’s a $2,900 annual check, on average, to each of the roughly 1,100 farms in Sumner.
It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s double the average per-person food stamp benefit.
Washington helped Sumner County farmers in other ways that year, too.
It provided $608,541 to cover deficient farm loans, $194,829 for conservation payments, even $45,346 for milk price supports. It provided nearly $1 million to subsidize operating loans that year.
But by far the biggest taxpayer expense — nearly $12.5 million in Sumner County in 2010 — paid for federal crop insurance for Sumner County’s farmers.
The government helps provide crop insurance coverage in two ways. It subsidizes the premiums farmers pay though their private insurers. Then, if a drought or hailstorm hit, the feds can, under some circumstances, reimburse private insurers for part of their payouts.
Farmers can participate in the insurance program regardless of income.
It’s expensive. Since 1995, EWG says, Washington has spent more than $131 million in Sumner County to subsidize crop insurance, about $120,000 per farm over 17 years. In a report last week, the Government Accountability Office said national crop insurance costs have doubled, on average, over the past decade — to more than $7 billion a year.
But farmers, and the politicians who represent them, say crop insurance is essential. Without it, banks would be reluctant to loan them money for seed and fertilizer, and pesticide companies would suffer. The economic impact would ripple through the community.
And the federal government has to subsidize crop insurance, they say, because no private company can afford to — at least not at premiums farmers would be willing to pay.
“I don’t need guarantees. I don’t want guarantees. We don’t want a government handout,” said wheat farmer Scott Van Allen in north-central Sumner County.
“But we need a safety net.”
Subsidized crop insurance is controversial.
“There are farmers out in western Kansas that are probably cussing Obama all the way to the bank that are probably getting checks from the federal government for crop insurance last year for $500,000,” said former U.S. Rep. Jim Slattery, a Democrat and one-time Kansas gubernatorial candidate.
But Sen. Pat Roberts, the Kansas Republican who has helped craft America’s farm policy for more than three decades, strongly defends federally subsidized crop insurance.
“We’re coming through the third year of a drought,” he said. “If you don’t have a crop, you better have crop insurance or you’re not in business.”
Roberts’ support for federal assistance to farmers isn’t limited to crop insurance, though — he’s defended subsidized loans and commodity supports since his congressional career began in 1981. The senior Kansas senator is credited with inventing direct payments, which were part of his 1996 “Freedom to Farm” bill.
Direct payments — based on historical production rates and intended to wean farmers from government reliance —will likely end if Congress passes a new farm bill. It’s now more than a year behind schedule.
Duane Reichenberger, who manages more than 40 farms in south-central Kansas, says many farmers miss the connection between the help Roberts gets for them and the help others receive from Washington.
“You talk to farmers and they’re like, ‘all these welfare programs and food stamps,’ ” he said. “And then you say: ‘Well, you receive cost-share. You receive direct payments.’ And they stop and think about it, and they say, ‘Yes, we do.’ ”
Bob Bixby of the Concord Coalition, a lobbying group for a balanced budget, says it’s common for taxpayers to oppose federal spending when it goes to someone else, but support it when it’s coming home.
“Things that are coming to their locality, they think are worthwhile,” he said. “They don’t think of it as pork.”
Roberts, though, says federal support for agriculture has a dual purpose. It not only helps farmers, he says, but it helps guarantee a stable, low-cost food supply for city dwellers.
“There’s a national interest there,” he said. “We don’t do a very good job of educating people.”