Oklahoma sod farmers get commodity farm subsidies legally

TULSA - Helping out commodity farmers, that's the idea behind some farm subsidies.

The 2NEWS Investigators found businesses are legally receiving hundreds of thousands of dollars for crops they aren't growing.

Don Schieber has been farming all his life.

"I grow wheat for export," Schieber said.

This time of year, once the wheat is planted, it's up to Mother Nature.

"We're a day closer to the good rain everyday, and one of these days we're going to get it," he said.

But it's been more than just a dry spell. The drought has destroyed crops nationwide and then there's always the market to worry about.

View photos of how the drought is affecting the U.S. at http://bit.ly/picsdrought

"When the grain prices crashed, like they've been know to do, then we're in really big trouble and that's when the subsidies help us out more," said Schieber.

And that's what farm subsidies are for, to help farmers in tough times.

Farm subsidies go to what are considered commodity crops like wheat, corn, soybeans and sorghum, but the 2NEWS Investigators found hundreds of thousands of dollars going to businesses who aren't growing commodity crops at all. Instead, they're growing the stuff golf courses are made of: sod and it's perfectly legal.

How can a sod farm get a wheat subsidy?

A USDA spokesperson said the subsidies are based on what was historically planted so maybe wheat was planted in 1986 and by 1995 nothing was growing on the land. If you apply for it, you can still continue to get the subsidies for wheat.

The USDA sent us this statement:

"A farmer is not obligated to grow the crop to receive a direct payment for that crop, and may plant any crop (with the exception of fruits and vegetables), or may choose to plant no crop and still receive the payment."

Also, the land must be considered agricultural and be at least 10 acres in size to get the subsidies.

We poured over USDA documents gathered by the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit research group. We found three area sod farms taking subsidies for land they are growing grass on.

Search for farm subsidy recipients in Oklahoma at http://bit.ly/11jEdpy

The records show Tulsa Grass & Sod received $22,000 from 1995 to 2010 in farm subsidies for commodity crops, but instead were growing sod. After several tries, they declined an interview.

Then there's Genoff Farms in Bixby, according to USDA data, from 1996 to 2011 it's received $135,000. Their subsidies are for wheat and soybeans, but the owner admits most of the land they're receiving subsidies for has grass growing on it. They too declined to talk on camera.

Meanwhile, at Easton Sod Farms in Bixby, the records indicate it's received $119,000 for six different subsides from 2000 to 2011, but admit they've been growing grass on the land.

The owner of Easton of Sod, John Easton, did not want to talk to us, but his attorney, Phil Frazier, sent us a letter. It said, "As part of their contract with the government, the Eastons have removed their farm from crops to growing sod but must keep the land available and undeveloped."

We found most sod farms in our area don't take subsidies, but for the three that do, it totals about $275,000.

Still, when you compare that to the big farms in our state, the top one has racked in more than $5 million in subsidies from 1995 to 2011, and 135 Oklahoma farmers brought in over $1 million during the same time period. All the while, Schieber received $75,000  from 1995 to 2011.

Our investigation found commodity farmers get most of the subsidy money, but the fact that people growing sod are getting even some of it, concerns Schieber.

"In those situations they shouldn't be entitled to them. If they're growing sod, that's a big business," said Schieber.

It's certainly not something Congressman Frank Lucas feels people should get subsidies for.

"While the good folks enjoy their lawn and a lot of folks spend a good bit of time out on those golf courses, I think probably, in the view of most constituents, it's the flour that comes from the wheat, it's the livestock that comes from the corn. It's all these other things that would be the definition of what a commodity title should be," said Congressman Frank Lucas, (R) Oklahoma.

Congressman Lucas is the chair of the House Agriculture Committee and says criticism over the subsidy programs will mean changes next year, but he still has a plan to help out farmers.

"Using insurance to try to maintain a revenue stream," said Lucas.

Plus, he also wants to offer price protection for farmers in case the market takes a turn. As long as the farmers still get subsidies in some way to help them out, Don's happy with it. Now he's just waiting for the rain so he can do what he loves most: farming.

"We're providing a service. We're feeding the people," said Schieber.



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