At the tip of Michigan's Thumb, Huron County is perhaps best known for miles of shoreline that wind along Saginaw Bay and Lake Huron and thousands of acres of fertile and flat farmland. Farmers cultivate everything from corn to navy beans to sugar beets and raise dairy cattle and chickens, ranking third in the state with $374 million in agricultural production.
They also harvested $279 million in federal subsidies from 1995 to 2012, tops in Michigan, according to the Environmental Working Group, a Washington D.C.-based advocacy group.
That included $178 million in commodity subsidies, $58 million in crop insurance subsidies, $30 million in conservation subsidies and $13 million in disaster subsidies.
To its south, Sanilac County comes in third, with $252 million in subsidies from 1995 to 2012. Lenawee County in southwestern Michigan ranked second, with $259 million in subsidies.
Overall, according to Environmental Working Group, Michigan collected $4.87 billion in U.S. Department of Agriculture subsidies from 1995 to 2012, ranking 22nd among 50 states. It found that payments go disproportionately to the largest and most profitable operations, with the top 10 percent of recipients collecting an average of $29,944 a year and the bottom 80 percent an average of $606 a year.
According to its database, individuals in zip code 48236 - including Grosse Pointe, Grosse Pointe Farms and Grosse Pointe Woods – reaped more than $1.2 million in subsidies from 1995 to 2012. The top recipient, a resident of Grosse Pointe Farms – received more than $250,000 for a farm operation in the state of Washington. Residents of zip code 48302 in Oakland County's Bloomfield Hills received more than $300,000 in subsidies from 1995 to 2012.
“Federal farm subsidies have not worked at all, for a long time, for a number of reasons,” said Craig Cox, a vice president of Environmental Working Group. “You don't even have to be a farmer in order to get a subsidy. If you are an investor in a farm operation, you can benefit from subsidies.”
With crop insurance replacing direct subsidies as the primary form of federal aid to farmers, disagreement over recipient income limits is a key point of contention in debate over a new farm bill. The version passed in the U.S. Senate would keep an estimated 20,000 farmers with adjusted gross incomes above $750,000 from receiving such payments, saving $1.3 billion over a decade, while the House version has no such cap.
“There has been a lot of resistance (from lobbying groups) to means testing,” Cox said.
Farmers are eligible for payouts when crops fail due to drought or flood, but also when crop prices drop. The government spent an estimated $15.8 billion on the program for the 2012 crop year after a drought destroyed many crops, up from $9.4 billion in 2011. The government subsidizes about 60 percent of farmers' insurance premiums and also subsidizes the insurance companies that sell the policies.
Ryan Findlay, national legislative counsel for the Michigan Farm Bureau, believes the subsidy program has worked as intended.
“At the end of the day, we have to have a farm policy that works for Michigan farmers. In the past we can say the program has worked – they have made sure that we have the highest quality, safest, most affordable food system in the world.”
As for payments that might go to wealthy individuals, Findlay said: “We don't really think it's the government's role to tell a property owner what they can or cannot do on their land.”
Matthew Reibling, a Huron County farmer and president of the Huron County Farm Bureau, also believes that federal subsidies are needed. Reibling said he farms about 4,500 acres of corn, soybeans, sugar beets and dry beans with an uncle, an operation known as JADE farm. According to the Environmental Working Group, it received about $1.9 million in subsidies from 1995 through 2012.
“We are not always going to have great days in agriculture,” Reibling said.
“We need to have some protection against price fluctuation. But this country has really been fortunate that we have the agricultural system we do. Other countries could only dream about the great production we have.”
Michigan's top recipient from 1995 to 2012 was Berrybrook Enterprises, a tri-county farm operation based in Cass County in southwestern Michigan, according to Environmental Working Group. It received $5.2 million in commodity subsidies and a total of $6.9 million, including nearly $1 million in disaster subsidies and more than $600,000 in conservation subsidies. The total included $3.6 million in subsidies for corn and $667,068 for soybeans.
In addition to its U.S.D.A. subsidies, it also had dealings with another federal agency.
In August 2012, the U.S. Department of Labor filed a complaint against Berrybrook Enterprises, asserting it had failed to provide adequate housing for migrant workers. According to the department, it found housing violations during five investigations dating back to 2001, including lack of sanitary facilities for preparing food, inadequate hot running water and rat and insect infestations.
In May 2013, Berrybrook Enterprises agreed to build new housing and pay fines totaling $9,700 to settle the lawsuit. Calls to the business asking for comment were not returned.