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There are billions on the line in the farm bill, but where does it all go?

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JAMESTOWN, N.D. -- A couple billion dollars for wheat here, another billion for corn there, a few hundred million for soybeans -- maybe more for barley, too.

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No matter how you slice the numbers, as the federal farm bill makes its way through Congress, Minnesota and North Dakota farmers have big money at stake.

Since 1995, when the Washington, D.C., -based Environmental Working Group first began compiling detailed data on farm subsidies, North Dakota farmers have received about $13 billion in subsidies, according to the group's database. Minnesota farmers have received more than $15 billion.

That aid comes in the form of a hodgepodge of programs, ranging from direct payments per acreage to disaster relief money to subsidies that cover the bulk of the cost of crop insurance.

The new bill, which passed the Senate last week and is expected to be taken up by the House later this summer, will change the landscape of some of that aid, but the basic idea remains the same: A safety net to keep farmers from ruin should business take a hit.

Supporters of the farm program say that safety net keeps the nation's food supply stable and secure.

"We need to recognize that a safe, bountiful supply of food is important," said Woody Barth, president of the North Dakota Farmer's Union. "A good farm bill provides that resource."

Both Barth and Doug Pederson, president of the Minnesota Farmer's Union, said the Senate bill - which eliminates direct payments in favor of greater crop insurance support, and caps that support for high-income farmers -- strikes a good balance between protecting farmers and controlling costs.

Critics -- including the Environmental Working Group, which wants major program reforms and less overall aid - say the government goes too far in guaranteeing farm earnings, and diverts too much aid to big farms that don't need it.

"These programs are seeking to almost insure that a farmer will never see a loss," said David DeGennaro, the group's legislative analyst. "We'd like to see a more sane level of protection for farmers."

The current bill expires Sept. 30, and many key details must still be worked out between the House and Senate. In the meantime, The Forum pored through the Environmental Working Group database to break down how much and what kinds of aid regional farmers have received over the past decade and a half.

A few notes on the data:

• All information comes from farm.ewg.org.

• The most recent data was compiled in 2010.

• State and county commodity subsidy totals include crop insurance aid, but crop insurance information isn't available for individual recipients.

Commodity subsidies

Between 1995 and 2010, about 88,000 North Dakota farmers received:

• $6.1 billion in commodity subsidies, which include direct payments, countercyclical payments, and loan programs

About 148,000 Minnesota farmers received:

• $9.9 billion in commodity subsidies, which include direct payments, countercyclical payments, and loan programs

Direct payments: Payments paid at a fixed rate per acre regardless of conditions. These are likely to be discontinued in the next farm bill, saving about $5 billion a year. Barth of the NDFU said they're "indefensible" in strong times such as these.

Counter-cyclical payments: Payments that kick in when the price for a commodity drops below a certain floor. These have been less common as prices have stayed high. These are also likely to be ended.

Average Crop Revenue Election program: An alternative attempt to streamline to direct and countercyclical payments by guaranteeing minimum revenue per acre. These will likely not be included in the new farm law.

Marketing loans and loan deficiency payments: With marketing loans, farmers can take out a loan against the value of their crops, and keep the difference if their crop value drops below the value of the loan. Or they can opt for loan deficiency payments, which act as direct payments when prices are low. The loan programs would be retained under the farm bill under consideration.

Crop insurance

Between 1995 and 2010, about 88,000 North Dakota farmers received:

• $3.2 billion in crop insurance subsidies

About 148,000 Minnesota farmers received:

• $2.8 billion in crop insurance subsidies

Crop insurance subsidies: Privately administered and publicly subsidized, this compensates farmers for a loss of crop yields or revenue. About 60 percent of premiums are currently paid for by subsidies. Crop insurance is the centerpiece of the new Senate farm bill. More than two-thirds of aid in the bill comes from insurance subsidies.

Disaster payments

Between 1995 and 2010, about 88,000 North Dakota farmers received:

• $1.7 billion in disaster payments

About 148,000 Minnesota farmers received:

• $703 million in disaster payments

Disaster payments: Aid that compensates farmers for losses because of storms or other natural disasters is included in the Senate bill.

Conservation

Between 1995 and 2010, about 88,000 North Dakota farmers received:

• $1.9 billion in conservation payments, the bulk of which is from the Conservation Reserve Program

About 148,000 Minnesota farmers received:

• $1.8 billion in conservation payments, the bulk of which is from the Conservation Reserve Program

Conservation Reserve Program: Pays farmers to leave land for conservation rather than farming it. The program is alive in the new bill, but with some reduction in eligible acres. The new bill also requires farmers to comply with certain conservation standards to be eligible for crop insurance subsidies.

How N.D. and Minn. did

North Dakota, 1995-2010: $12.9 billion (No. 7 nationwide)

• 84 percent of farms collected subsidies

• 61 percent of subsidies went to the top 10 percent of farmers

• Most common subsidy: wheat, with 61,047 recipients

Top programs, 1995-2010:

1. Wheat subsidies, $4.9 billion

2. Conservation Reserve Program, $1.7 billion

3. Disaster payments, $1.68 billion

4. Corn subsidies, $1.1 billion

5. Soybean subsidies, $843 million

Top individual recipients in North Dakota, 1995-2010:

1. Johnson Farms, Walhalla, $5.1 million

2. Dalrymple Farms, Casselton, $4 million

3. Kohler Farms Partnership, Valley City, $3.9 million

4. Weinreis Brothers, Golva, $3.6 million

5. Winter Farms Family Partner, Oriska, $3.5 million

Minnesota, 1995-2010: $15.2 billion (No. 4 nationwide)

• 70 percent of farms collected payments

• 62 percent of payments went to 10 perent of farms

• Most common: corn, with 90,115 recipients

Top programs, 1995-2010:

1. Corn subsidies, $7.4 billion

2. Soybean subsidies, $2.6 billion

3. Conservation Reserve Program, $1.6 billion

4. Wheat subsides, $1.47 billion

5. Disaster payments, $703 million

Top individual recipients in Minnesota, 1995-2010:

1. Harvest States Cooperatives, St. Paul, $46.3 million

2. Molitor Bros. Farm, Cannon Falls, Minn., $6.0 million

3. Oberg Farms Partnership, Moorhead, $4.9 million

4. Hector Farms II Partnership, Hector, $4.5 million

5. Hader Farms Partnership, Zumbrota, $4.3 million

Examples

For an example of how the money breaks down, consider Dalrymple Farms, the family farm of North Dakota Gov. Jack Dalrymple. Between 1995 and 2010, the farm received $4.5 million in federal subsidies, the second-highest total in the state.

Over that time, the farm received:

• $1.5 million in direct payments (nearly all wheat and soybeans)

• $1.2 million in loan deficiency payments

• $494,000 in disaster payments

• $488,000 in production flexibility contracts

• $342,000 via the Average crop Revenue Election Program

• $408,000 in Market Loss Assistance

• $122,000 from other program

For another example, consider Oberg Farms in Moorhead, the recipient of $6.8 million in subsidies - the third-highest total in Minnesota - between 1995 and 2010. The farm received:

• $1.9 million in disaster payments

• $1.5 million in direct payments (mostly wheat, corn and soybeans)

• $1.3 million in production flexibility contracts

• $664,000 in market loss assistance

• $547,000 in loan deficiency payments

• $466,000 in apple and potato quality loss

• $451,000 from other programs

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