America's farm safety net was created during the Great Depression as an essential reform to support rural communities and protect struggling family farmers from the financial shocks of volatile weather and equally volatile commodity prices.
Almost 75 years later, the reasons for maintaining that strong safety net still exist.
The 2002 Farm Bill actually spurred rural development by allowing farmers in Minnesota and across the country to take risks to expand production. Because of productivity gains and innovation, including advances in renewable energy, the farm support programs in the 2002 Farm Bill actually came in $17 billion under budget.
As the Senate debates a final 2007 Farm Bill this week, it is important not to underestimate the value of a strong bill for states like Minnesota, where agriculture is vital to our economy and way of life.
The new Farm Bill includes an increased focus on cellulosic-based ethanol, continued support for a strong commodity safety net and additional money for conservation, nutrition and disaster relief. It will invest in our farms and rural communities.
But there is one critical area where more reform is needed: stopping urban millionaires from pocketing farm subsidies intended for hard-working farmers.
Nationally, 60 farms have collected more than $1 million each under the 2002 Farm Bill, but none of them has been in Minnesota. The average income of Minnesota farms, after expenses, is $54,000. But under the current system, a part-time farmer can have an income as high as $2.5 million from outside sources and still qualify for federal benefits.
It makes no sense to hand out payments to multimillionaires. That money should be targeted to family farmers.
Big payments to big-city investors threaten to undermine public support for every farm program, even though commodity payments are projected to be just 15 percent of the total Farm Bill budget over the next five years.
A poster boy for what needs to be changed is Maurice Wilder, a Florida-based real-estate developer. In the 2003-2005 period, he collected more than $3.2 million in farm payments for properties in five states, even though his wealth is estimated at $500 million.
Nearly 600 residents of New York City, 559 residents of Washington, D.C., and even 21 residents of Beverly Hills 90210 received federal farm checks in the past three years. Some collected hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Last time I checked, there wasn't a lot of farmland in those communities.
We can fix this and do better for our farmers by using the new Farm Bill to close loopholes, tighten payment limits and enforce tougher income eligibility standards.
First, the current Senate and House Farm Bill proposals eliminate the "three-entity rule." This will end the practice of dividing farms into multiple corporations to multiply payments.
Second, a long-standing bill proposed by Sens. Byron Dorgan and Charles Grassley would limit annual payments to $250,000.
Third, nonfarmer millionaires should be precluded from receiving payments.
Agriculture remains central to our nation's economy. The best interests of America's rural economy demand that we correct the abuses of the past and ensure a strong safety net for hardworking farmers.
Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., is a member of the U.S. Senate.