WASHINGTON - Jay Nord understands that he and other farmers have a public relations problem when it comes to taking money from the government.
Prices of commodities like corn and wheat are so high that food manufacturers predict higher consumer prices. Budget cutters are looking for places to save, and subsidies that give billions of tax dollars to people who in some cases don't even have to plant a seed can look like an easy target.
Their argument: Why should farmers with incomes up to $1.25 million a year get propped up by taxpayers who make exponentially less?
Nord, who grows wheat and soybeans with his brother on 4,000 acres near Moorhead, Minn., doesn't make nearly that much. He thinks the public should understand how difficult it is for family farmers to make ends meet.
"It used to be that a farmer could raise a family on a 300-acre farm," Nord said. "Today, 300 acres wouldn't even pay your health insurance premiums, much less buy food and send your kids to college."
President Barack Obama's new budget envisions $2.5 billion in cuts from farm subsidies by 2021. Obama proposes to reduce the limit on adjusted gross farm and non-farm income to $750,000, from $1.25 million. He also hopes to cut the maximum individual farm subsidy payment from $40,000 per person per year to $30,000.
Erik Younggren, who farms 5,000 acres in northwest Minnesota with two cousins, doesn't think small farmers should be lumped in with agribusiness. "As long as decisions are made around the kitchen table," he said, "it's still a family farm."
Younggren said he thinks efforts to aggressively cut subsidies this year will fail, as they have in the past. "The current farm bill goes until the end of 2012," said Younggren, a fourth-generation farmer. "In the next farm bill, there will be talk of reducing or eliminating the subsidy. There always is. We just have to do a better job of educating members of Congress."
What Minnesota farmers want, say their advocates, is not money for nothing, but protection against going out of business in bad times. Some, like Nord and Younggren, say that in a pinch they would trade government subsidies for government-paid crop insurance.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., said direct subsidies are "mandatory" under the current budget authorization bill, although he said he recognizes the need for a farm subsidy program that is easier to explain to the public.
Peterson said he tried to cut a deal in the 2008 farm bill to lower the adjusted gross income limit for subsidies to $750,000.
He failed, as Southern members of Congress torpedoed the deal in the interest of rice, cotton and peanut farmers.
On the other hand, Peterson also called income limits and benefit reductions "kind of arbitrary."
"I'm not a big payment-limitations fan," he said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, the Minnesota Democrat who sits on the Senate Agriculture Committee, also tried to amend the 2008 farm bill to limit the adjusted gross income of farmers eligible for direct payments to $750,000. The amendment needed 60 votes. It got 48.
As far as Obama's current proposals, Klobuchar says she believes "changes to farm programs are best made in the farm bill." Those negotiations probably won't take place until 2012.
The Washington-based Environmental Working Group has battled direct farm subsidies for years. The group says the vast majority of direct payments now go to a small percentage of giant farming businesses, not mom and pop operations.
As the national deficit threatens the entire economy, Craig Cox, senior vice president at Environmental Working Group, sees the best chance in years to curtail or at least change a program that he calls "a check in the mail, year after year, no matter what you do."
"The credibility and justification for these payments is at an all-time low," he said.
Direct payments are based on a complex formula that includes how many acres of a crop a farmer planted in past years. A per-bushel payment also applies. The program started in 1996 and was called "transitional assistance" because it was supposed to wean farmers off production-based subsidies and then disappear as free trade in the world market took over. However, the few-strings-attached payments have never gone away.