WASHINGTON — Fresno County farmers lead the nation in harvesting farm subsidies, collecting nearly $1 billion since 1995, newly available Agriculture Department records show.
Other California counties are close behind. Kern, Colusa and Tulare counties rank third, fourth and fifth, respectively, nationwide for total farm subsidies received, with rice and cotton growers benefiting the most.
"Despite that massive amount of money, we're still losing farms," said Craig Cox, senior vice president of the Environmental Working Group, "and we're still not getting at the fundamental farm problems."
Payments to Fresno County farmers totaled $961 million between 1995 and 2009. Last year the farmers took in $75.9 million.
"It's a good thing, because it shows we are putting federal dollars to work," Fresno County Farm Bureau Executive Director Ryan Jacobsen said Tuesday.
Jacobsen added that Agriculture Department programs targeting "the environmental side of things" help account for Fresno County's share of payments.
All told, California farmers harvested $9.1 billion in federal farm subsidies between 1995 and 2009, the records obtained and analyzed by the environmental group show.
Other farm states are far more reliant on crop subsidies than California. Only about 10 percent of California's farmers receive subsidies, and the fruit and vegetable crops for which the state is famous are largely unsubsidized.
In wheat-rich Iowa, the home state of Agriculture Secretary and former Gov. Tom Vilsack, an estimated 71 percent of growers receive federal payments. Despite the abundant payments to certain Central Valley counties, California ranks ninth among states for total subsidies received.
Nationwide, Agriculture Department farm payments totaled $245.2 billion since 1995.
The records viewable at www.ewg.org update a database begun by the Environmental Working Group in 2004. The organization releases the data in hopes of influencing lawmakers to tighten payments. Its data are widely respected as accurate.
"We have a farm program that says the bigger you get, the more you'll get more from the federal government," said Chuck Hassebrook, executive director of the Nebraska-based Center for Rural Affairs. "This database documents the truth about this."
The Sacramento-based Farmers Rice Cooperative and the cotton-growing Dublin Farms and Hansen Ranches, both based in Corcoran, have topped all other subsidy recipients in California since 1995.
Spokesmen for Dublin Farms and Hansen Ranches could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Lawmakers are now laying the foundation for a new farm bill, a once-every-five-years exercise where the crop subsidy programs are created, refined and sometimes even die. On Monday, members of the House Agriculture Committee met in Fresno as part of the 2012 farm bill preparations.
"Farmers receive a small but predictable level of ongoing support, and have the benefit of a greater safety net when market prices fall," Frank Rehermann, a rice farmer from the Sutter County town of Live Oak, advised the panel. "This is a system that works for farmers and for the country."