LIANE HANSEN, host:
Every five years, Congress reconsiders all of the federal farm subsidies. And this is one of those years. And once again, the farm bill is raising questions about the billion of tax dollars it doles out and who benefits from them.
NPR's Peter Overby has the story of one case that illustrates the anomalies of farm policy.
PETER OVERBY: Figuring out where farm subsidy money goes used to be next to impossible. Then, in the mid-1990s, an advocacy organization called the Environmental Working Group began building a database.
They used official data from the Agriculture Department and they've continued to update it. So if you wonder which individual entity got the most money in farm subsidies between 1999 and 2005, you can look it up. It's King Ranch in South Texas - $8.3 million in subsidies for raising not cattle but cotton.
Mr. KEN COOK (President, Environmental Working Group): So what we see here with King Ranch is a very strong draw on the federal treasury for the cotton program. Over $8 million.
OVERBY: Ken Cook, president of the Environmental Working Group, points out that King Ranch is hardly a small family farm.
Mr. COOK: It's the exact opposite that probably most taxpayers would have in mind when they would think of how their farm subsidy money is supporting agriculture.
OVERBY: And indeed, King Ranch does seem an unlikely beneficiary. The ranch dates back to 1853. It helped to shape our cowboys and longhorns image of the American west. Still family-owned, King Ranch sits on the Gulf Coast. It covers an astonishing 1,200 square miles. And of those 1,200, just 23 are devoted to cotton, according to ranch president Jack Hunt.
Mr. JACK HUNT (President, King Ranch): The cotton acreage - it's a significant cotton farm, as cotton farms go, but - the King Ranch perspective, it's just one piece of our company.
OVERBY: And the other parts?
Mr. HUNT: We have a ranching operation. It operates on about 800,000 acres. And of course, we have an extensive hunting and recreation and wildlife operation as well.
OVERBY: Sam Gwynne recently profiled the ranch for Texas Monthly. He describes how it's diversified.
Mr. SAM GWYNNE (Executive Editor, Texas Monthly): They're the nation's largest citrus grower. They're one of the country's largest sod farmers. They're also in milo and they're in pecans.
OVERBY: Not to mention a custom saddle shop and several lines of King Ranch products. Under license agreement, the ranch's famous cattle brand, the Running W, appears on the hubcaps of the upscale Ford King Ranch F-150 pickup. And it's carved into the stocks of King Ranch model shotguns and rifles by Beretta. That brand building ties in with King Ranch's hottest area of growth - habitat conservation. The family is proud of their conservation heritage. And they make money sharing it with wealthy hunters.
Mr. GWYNNE: If you don't live down here and you haven't seen this, it's hard to imagine. What they do is they lease their land.
OVERBY: Lease it to hunters, that is. Again, Sam Gwynne.
Mr. GWYNNE: The leases on a King Ranch are often gigantic. I mean, to the tune of thirty or forty thousand acres, with large camps that you and I would consider five-star hotels.
OVERBY: So that's far more acreage than the subsidized cotton fields.
Jack Hunt, the ranch president, says the habitat and hunting site of the ranch is doing well.
Mr. HUNT: In a revenue sense, it certainly equals the cattle operation. But the two are very symbiotic. You know, your roads and your water systems and your fencing. The cattle and the wildlife were are all interlinked. And you have to manage it as one system.
OVERBY: King Ranch also has a big business presence in Washington. The Center for Investigative Reporting, which provided reporting for this story, details the ranch's political action committee and its well-paid lobbying team.
Until recently, that team included Katharine Armstrong of the Armstrong Ranch. Yes, that's where vice president Dick Cheney wounded a friend while hunting in 2006. It's just south of King Ranch. So the more you look at King Ranch, you have to wonder not why they're getting so much federal farm money but why they even bother.
Jack Hunt, the president, says they applied for the cotton money because other cotton growers do; and even stranger, because the federal subsidy program provides the framework for the whole cotton-growing industry.
Mr. HUNT: It gets very complex but the way that works with the buyers and the whole marketing system is sort of based on that process.
OVERBY: But if Hunt finds it annoying to be practically forced to take cotton subsidies, he's at least equally irritated that King Ranch can't get federal subsidies for all those acres it devotes to conservation. It seems that part of the farm bill is designed to benefit smaller farms.
Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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