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How big is too big? 15 acres? 150? 1,500?

OK, I admit it. I'm one of those urban recipients of government payments to big, wealthy farmers. Or I could be if I decide to fill out the paperwork.

I recently received a letter from USDA informing me of the amount of Agricultural Use Land the Farm Service Agency is showing for the farm my brothers and I own in St. Francis County, Ark.

FSA has sent similar letters to other farmers to help them prepare for signup for the direct and counter-cyclical payments from the new farm bill. The signup is scheduled to begin at county offices Oct. 1.

Before the Environmental Working Group begins filing Freedom of Information Act requests so that it can tell the world how much money my brothers and I could receive, let me add that the Agricultural Use Land on our farm is 44.7 acres. Of those, 15 have been planted in soybeans in recent years.

As you might judge from the numbers, our payments will not rival those of NBA star Scotty Pippen or others who have been pilloried in the media for taking money from farm programs.

While it may be just a blip on the map, our little farm has been a source of pride for my brothers, two of whom live on the farm. (We have an abstract for the land, which was purchased by my grandfather in the 1930s, which shows it was originally settled as part of a grant for service in the War of 1812.)

For the first few years, my grandfather made a living off those 70 acres, planting cotton to sell and corn and hay to feed his cattle, hogs and mules. He also grew a large garden that included a half-acre potato patch.

When my father returned from World War II, he and my grandfather rented land on two adjoining farms so they could try to support two families. But even that wasn't enough, and my Dad went to town and got a job with the local power company.

In a few days, the House will debate the 2003 agricultural appropriations bill. Reps. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, Nick Smith, R-Mich., and others are expected to offer an amendment similar to the Grassley-Dorgan payment limit legislation.

Most expect the amendment, which would limit farmers and their spouses to payments of $275,000 a year, to again be offered when the appropriations bill moves to the Senate. The idea: stop payments to “big,” wealthy farmers.

My question to Reps. Kaptur and Smith and other payment limit proponents is that if they want to stop payments to big farmers, what size is too big? Is it 15 acres? 150 acres? 1,500 acres?

Studies show that many Sun Belt farmers would hit the Grassley-Dorgan payment limit with less than 1,500 acres of cotton. For rice, the acreage is much smaller and for cotton and peanuts even less than that.

If my father and grandfather couldn't support their families on 150 acres in the 1950s, how do Kaptur and Smith think a farmer can possibly do the same in 2002 with the astronomical increases in production costs that have occurred?

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