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Farmer on the Dole

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

Though he moved to the city, Mersfelder and his mother kept their land on the eastern plains. His mother still lives there much of the year, and he visits often. Later, Mersfelder bought up more nearby acreage as an investment. Most of the land was already in the Conservation Reserve Program, a federal assistance program that pays landowners not to farm ground that ideally never should have been farmed in the first place. These days, out of 13,000 acres, only about 1,000 are actually farmed.

Mersfelder says he still thinks of himself as a farmer, and records compiled by the Environmental Working Group agree: He and his wife received subsidy checks totaling $705,000, or about $141,000 annually, between 1996 and 2000. But property records show that they also live in a new house in an exclusive Castle Rock neighborhood and own a $1 million home in Edwards, near Vail.

Harry Schack moved to Denver from his small Nebraska hometown in 1960. Two years later he received his real-estate license; in 1988 he was named Colorado Realtor of the Year. Despite his living, buying and selling Denver real estate, he has also collected $335,000 worth of subsidies over the past five years from family land back in Nebraska. (Most, he says, is from the Conservation Reserve Program.)

Finally, bona fide city dwellers Nathaniel and Louise Merrill -- Nathaniel headed Opera Colorado for many years -- have, through a family trust, continued to earn about $13,200 a year in subsidies for family plots in Kansas.

Some urban subsidy farmers came to their avocation from the opposite direction: They started in the city and then branched out rural-ward. They have personal reasons for holding their ground. William Danks, for example, fits Hoag's description of a farmer who earns a living despite his crops, not because of them.

A Denver native, Danks had a farm in his family nearly a century ago. His grandfather moved from Illinois to Colorado in 1905. "You have to go back three generations in my family to find the farm," he says.

Danks worked happily as a city attorney until his children reached their teens. When one began running into trouble in school, Danks looked for a place to get him out of trouble. Danks and his wife turned north, eventually settling on a 320-acre spread outside of Greeley.

The couple knew barely anything about farming. What little they did know they'd learned together as Peace Corps volunteers in Bolivia a quarter-century earlier. Still, they were determined. They bought a 1970s green tractor and other secondhand equipment and began plowing.

Today the Danks sell most of their corn and winter wheat to ConAgra's feedlots. But, Danks adds, any profit he sees would disappear without farm subsidies. Between 1996 and 2000, he received just over $227,000 in taxpayer-financed price supports --about $45,400 a year.

"If this were my real life, I couldn't do it," he admits.

William Erickson never lived on a farm. A Denver native, he left once to attend the University of Virginia Law School. He returned to Denver and began practicing law. For the last 25 years of his legal career, he served as a justice on the state's highest court.

But he also tries to hold on to his family's rural connection by overseeing a 7,000-acre spread in west Texas. "My grandfather acquired it in 1917 for about a dollar an acre," the now-retired Supreme Court justice says. The land has always been leased out to locals; many of the sharecroppers growing cotton, maize and wheat there now are the same people who have been there for decades. "These people are like family to me," Erickson says.

Erickson himself receives $57,000 a year in farm subsidies. "We're proud of the fact that we're producing some commodities that are important to the economy," he days. "But right now the price supports are necessary to keep farmers aboveground. It's impossible to contemplate what would happen if they were to be pulled. Without the supports, I'd have to sell the land."

He's not the only Denver lawyer/farmer. Robert Dyer III is a well-known litigation attorney, with downtown offices and a practice specializing in class-action lawsuits, particularly securities and investment fraud. A Montana native (he owns a working cattle ranch there), Dyer says he found himself wanting to add some farm ground to his holdings a while back.

So about twenty years ago he purchased some 5,000 acres of cropland in Washington County from its Canadian owners. Dyer has since sold off some of the property. Only about 1,000 acres remain in production, mostly dry-land wheat. "It frankly has not been a real good investment over the years," he admits.

Still, between 1996 and 2000, Dyer received about $287,000 in taxpayer money for his land that sits a couple hundred miles away from his home in Denver. Some is for price supports; other government payments have been made to Dyer to keep his land out of production. Without taxpayers' help, he says, "the property wouldn't be worthwhile."

He adds that the fact that a Denver lawyer earns farm subsidies is not what is important. "The purpose of farm assistance programs is to promote farming, whether it's done by family farmers on the farm or lawyers or investors," he says. Besides, Dyer adds, "There's no such thing as the family farm anymore. It's a corporation situation; the family farm is a figment of people's imagination."

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