Farmer on the Dole

Urban cowboys cash a surprising number of federal farm-subsidy checks.

On April 7, 1995, Coors Field opened for business. Designed to blend into Denver's lower-downtown warehouse district, the retro-looking, brick-encased home of the new expansion Colorado Rockies baseball club was an instant hit. Of course, at a cost of $215 million, the architecture did not come cheap.

But thanks to some hard campaigning from the team's chief executive officer, Jerry McMorris, the Rockies did not have to bear the entire burden. As has been the case with most new sports stadiums built today, the bulk of the Coors Field price tag was picked up by taxpayers. Denver-area residents subsidized McMorris's ballfield to the tune of $162 million, or about three-quarters of the bill.

Not everyone was in favor of the public money giveaway. Critics pointed out that McMorris was already a wealthy man (although one of his family businesses, NationsWay Transport, went bankrupt several years ago); surely, they argued, he could afford to pay his own way. To many, the idea of giving public money to a rich man was a waste.

Palmer Saylor III
Rockies owner, failed trucking magnate and taxpayer-assisted farmer Jerry McMorris.
Rockies owner, failed trucking magnate and taxpayer-assisted farmer Jerry McMorris.

Yet what most people don't know is that McMorris has been on the government dole for years -- as a farmer.

A man of many business interests and broad economic reach, McMorris is also the longtime owner of Timnath Farms, the vast family spread in Larimer and Weld counties, north and west of Denver. According to local farm officials, Timnath Farms sprawls across tens of thousands of acres of ranchland. Another 1,000 or so acres are irrigated cropland on which McMorris grows mostly corn, but also some wheat and barley.

Despite his personal fortune, in the eyes of the government, McMorris the farmer is no different than a small agriculturist with a hundred acres of wheat in Kit Carson County: Both are permitted access to the massive program of farm subsidies administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The subsidies, one of the larger single items in the federal budget, are distributed to make sure that farmers can continue to produce crops while still earning enough money to make a living.

The subsidies are based on production quantity, so larger amounts of taxpayer assistance naturally go to larger farms. Thus, big landowners such as McMorris generally are entitled to more money than owners of smaller farms.

In fact, between the years 1996 and 2000, no other farmer in Larimer County received more federal farm-subsidy money than Jerry McMorris. All told during that five-year period, the owner of the Colorado Rockies baseball team -- which Forbes magazine recently valued as the ninth-most-valuable Major League Franchise, worth $334 million with an annual income of $6.4 million -- received just over $262,000 of taxpayer help.

That makes McMorris, who did not return Westword telephone calls, a rich man receiving government money not because he needs it, but simply because he is entitled to it. As such, he represents a pivot point in the current debate over a new $160 billion farm bill now being forged in Congress. Many lawmakers have proposed changing the program. Even at this late date, it is still unclear what form the new law will take. But at their heart, most discussions regarding reform have struggled to define the purpose of farm subsidies: Are they to protect crops or farmers? The difference means everything to already wealthy landmen like McMorris.

"What we have to ask is, 'Are we doing this for the consumer, or are we doing it for the farmer?'" asks Dana Hoag, a professor and farm-policy specialist at Colorado State University. "If the subsidies are for the consumer, I don't care that Jerry McMorris gets the money, as long as there's enough wheat out there. But if it's for the farmer, I'm not sure I want taxpayer money going to the rich."

Most recipients of farm subsidies in Colorado are genuine farmers. Yet many are not what most people think of when they think of the family farmer. In addition to a baseball-team owner who hobnobs with the likes of Ted Turner (who, incidentally, also receives farm subsidies), it is a group that includes real-estate speculators, opera buffs, Vail chalet owners, sports executives, corporate titans, realtors, lawyers and doctors. It even includes a big airport on the edge of Denver.

When it comes to farm subsidies, Colorado is in the middle: Some states' farmers receive more in subsidies, other receive less. (Many figures for this story come from an Internet database compiled by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit, politically unaffiliated group that nevertheless receives money from organizations commonly described as "liberal" and "environmental." EWG's founder, Ken Cook, has written extensively on soil conservation. With minor exceptions -- overpayments to farmers that later had to be refunded to the government, for example -- none of the group's data has been challenged. And where possible, Westword has confirmed its numbers with local farm authorities.)

But even in the middle, the numbers are staggering. Between 1996, when the latest farm bill was passed, and 2000, Colorado farmers received about $1.3 billion. If the checks had gone to everyone, each man, woman and child in the state would have received about $430 for the five-year period.

The distribution of the money also generally mirrors that in the rest of the country, which is to say that a very few large farms get a disproportionate share of the money. Although some 35,000 Coloradans calling themselves farmers received federal assistance for their crops, the largest 20 percent of them received 80 percent of the money. The bottom 80 percent received payments of just over $2,000 a year.

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