John Loepky’s story is one of Texan self-reliance. Starting out in the mid-1980s with less than $100 in his pocket, Loepky first found work on farms and by the mid- 1990s owned his own land. Today he coaxes cotton, peanuts and wheat out of 3,300 acres of parched soil in Gaines County, getting as much as $2.4 million in revenue on a good year.
In bad years -- like 2011 -- he can rely on the government for help. Record-low rainfall triggered record-high crop insurance payouts of $125 million last year to local farmers, with taxpayers subsidizing $30.8 million of the $46.9 million of the premiums paid in the county that year. Loepky received about $1 million, which paid half of his loans for the year.
Landowners such as Loepky who rely on the federal safety net are less fond of the man who heads the government offering it. Gaines voters backed John McCain -- who voted against reauthorizing farm payments in 2008 -- over subsidy-supporting Barack Obama by 83 percent to 16 percent, the most lopsided margin among the top 10 aid-receiving counties in the U.S.
“Republicans understand business better than Democrats,” says Loepky, 47. “We need strong banks, low taxes. We need a safety net for farmers, but we need other things too.”
The landscape in Gaines, a west Texas county on the border with New Mexico, features dry, wind-swept farmland punctuated by oil rigs owned by Exxon Mobil Corp. (XOM:US) and Hess Corp. (HES:US) Crude, the area’s biggest industry, is as plentiful as water is scarce. Alcohol, at least officially, isn’t present at all. The county has been legally dry since 1944.
‘Ugly’ for Democrats
These days, Democrats are as hard to find as a drink. Gaines County last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1976, when Jimmy Carter won Texas with 51.1 percent of the vote over President Gerald Ford. Carter won 53 percent of the Gaines County tally that year.
No Democratic White House nominee has won the state or county in the last eight general elections, and not a single Democrat has filed to run for any county office in next month’s primary. The local congressman, Randy Neugebauer, describes himself on his website as a supporter of “conservative principles” who won a 100 percent rating in 2009 by the American Conservative Union.
“When it came to the filing period I felt like the ugly girl at the dance” trying to recruit Democrats, says Ray Savage, chairman of the Gaines County Democratic Party. “I don’t think this demonstrates an informed electorate.”
The political shift hasn’t stopped the flow of payments to the county’s cotton and peanut growers who have relied on aid dating to the 1930s Dust Bowl and Great Depression. Gaines County farmers took $797 million in payments from 1995 to 2010, including price supports, soil-conservation programs and crop- failure compensation, according to a database compiled by Washington-based lobby the Environmental Working Group. That puts it second in the nation behind Fresno County, California, as a recipient of federal funds.
Farmers use the programs mainly to give banks confidence that the loans to finance planned crops will be paid back regardless of weather or commodity prices, says Delmon Ellison, Jr. who farms 4,000 acres of cotton, peanuts and wheat in the area.
By making sure that acreage stays in production and farms don’t fail, “you’re making food affordable in large metropolitan areas,” Ellison says.
Wayne Mixon, the 74-year-old mayor of Seminole, the county seat, says he has “nothing good to say” about Obama, who he considers a “disaster” as president. “He is continually throwing money at problems that will probably fix themselves,” he says.
In Gaines County, the mere mention of the president’s name elicits responses from dismissal to disdain. Democrats have almost disappeared, says Jim Hightower, Texas’s agriculture commissioner (0145641D:US) from 1983 until 1991, when he was unseated by current governor -- and former Democrat -- Rick Perry. The party is seen in west Texas as lacking passion for those who work the land, he says.
“Texans like their politics hotter than high school love,” says Hightower, now a columnist and radio commentator. “They really want you to get into it.”
Many farmers today see themselves as small-business owners, says Cindy Rugeley, a political science professor at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. Republican identification with low taxes and less regulation appeals to them; meanwhile, government payments that have existed for generations “are institutionalized -- they’re part of business,” she says.
Since their establishment under Franklin D. Roosevelt, farm subsidies have evolved into a complex system of crop- specific payments, land improvement grants, loan programs and insurance subsidies for companies including Wells Fargo & Co. to protect growers from low prices and weather losses.
Crop output in Gaines County depends on the weather, and in recent years farmers have suffered from extremes. In 2004, 33.18 inches of rain fell on the county, the wettest since 1941. Last year rainfall was 3.51 inches, about half the amount recorded in 1934, the driest since Dust Bowl days.
Freak weather patterns nationwide triggered unprecedented insurance payouts last year. Total U.S. crop insurance payouts topped $10 billion for the first time, Overland Park, Kansas- based National Crop Insurance Services said in February.
In Texas, crop losses totaled $7.62 billion in 2011, including $2.2 billion for cotton growers, Texas A&M University said in March. Texas cotton ginnings fell 55 percent from the previous year to 3.49 million bales.
Farming in west Texas has survived in the face of such weather woes. Gaines County saw a farming revival beginning in the late 1970s with the arrival of dozens of German-speaking Mennonites from Mexico who bought up fallow land and began lucrative peanut and cotton farms. Their migration contributed the bulk of the county’s 21 percent population jump to 17,526 in the past decade, according to Mixon.
Loepky, a Mennonite and the middle one of 13 children, arrived in Texas illegally in 1984 from Chihuahua, Mexico, and became one of almost 3 million people given legal residence through the 1986 amnesty program signed by Ronald Reagan with bipartisan support. He became a citizen in 1997 and says a similar program would help him recruit farm workers.
“I owe Ronald Reagan a big thank you,” Loepky says.
Spanish, German, English
On a blindingly bright March day outside Seminole, Loepky drives through his holdings in a 2004 Chevrolet Silverado pickup that’s seen 166,000 miles. Checking the center-pivot irrigators that dispense the precious water, Loepky speaks Spanish to farm workers, German in a phone call with his wife, and switches back to English to talk to a visitor.
Loepky says subsidies are as important to survival as water, though he accepts that Washington eventually will reduce payments. Congressional agriculture committees have bipartisan support for a $23 billion cut in subsidies over 10 years. House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, a Wisconsin Republican, last month proposed $30 billion in farm aid cuts over a decade, a plan praised by Republican presidential contender Mitt Romney as a “bold step.” Ryan’s reductions are similar in size to those proposed by Obama in his 2013 budget.
Federal policies have helped guide Loepky’s business decisions. In 2009, he stopped cultivating chili peppers in part because he couldn’t find workers for the labor-intensive plant and federal crop insurance didn’t cover the crop. Wanting to diversify against farm risk, he established JNL Steel Components Inc., a building-materials business near his farm last year that employs his wife, his three children and seven other workers.
“I’ve been able to make this work for the past 20 years, even though I’ve lost some pretty good money some years,” Loepky says. “I will continue to try my best.”
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