By Candia Dames
WASHINGTON – Michael Tabor balanced his conscience against his farm subsidy and finally decided his conscience was worth more.
While many farmers defend federal farm subsidies as necessary to the continued efficient operation of agriculture, Tabor, a Takoma Park farmer who operates a small farm in South Central Pennsylvania, said the subsidies are little more than a welfare program for large farmers.
Dorsey Owings bristles at such suggestions.
The 81-year-old farmer has been in the business for more than six decades. He said that operations at his Millington farm would grind to a halt without the federal subsidy payments.
Over his lifetime, Owings has seen a boom in agricultural technologies that have been a godsend on one hand — but which have also created an overabundance of harvest.
“We’ve gotten so efficient,” he said, “we’re putting ourselves out of business.”
That’s where federal help comes in, he said. Owings’ farm got nearly $676,000 in federal aid between 1996 and 2001 to keep the 2,000-acre operation afloat, according to recently released U.S. Department of Agriculture data .
The money goes to help farmers who grow any of the eight commodity crops: corn, wheat, rice, cotton, soybeans, sorghum, oats and barley.
The Environmental Working Group, which analyzed the data, said Maryland farmers received more than $318.8 million in subsidies over the six-year period, with almost two-thirds of that amount going to large farms like Owings’.
“We feel a little guilty about what we’re taking,” Owings confessed. But he echoed farmers around the state. “Without it, I don’t see how we would have made ends meet.”
But Tabor said the “few” hundred dollars he used to receive from the government not to produce certain crops made no difference to his profit margins.
Besides, Tabor said he had moral issues with the payments.
“I was reimbursed for not growing certain grains,” he said. “It didn’t make sense to me because I wasn’t going to grow them anyway.
“I just decided my principles and beliefs were contrary to that kind of system,” he said.