The rich soil of the Midwest can grow just about anything. Including, apparently, dollar bills. In fact, to grow those, one doesn't even need a plot of land.
A skyscraper-and-concrete landscape is an unlikely place for farmers to set up shop. Yet there are at least 1,705 farmers in the city. Or, at least, that's how many Chicago-based people and groups cash federal farm subsidy checks, according to the Environmental Working Group, a think tank that tracks farm subsidies.
EWG's report found farmers in surprising places. Look at the cramped quarters of the 60611 zip code. That 1.6-square-mile stretch contains an estimated 24,744 people (the city-data.com Web site calls it "100 percent urban"). But, apparently, there's always room for a few crops.
According to EWG, three of the Top 10 farm subsidy recipients in the Chicago metro area list 60611 as their home ZIP code. These include Theodore D. Tieken Jr. (who brought home $286,415 in federal assistance between 2003-2005), Nancy Tieken ($222,688) and Elizabeth Kirkpatrick ($222,688). Good work if you can get it.
It's not just individuals cashing subsidy checks. Over in the 60604 ZIP code (also 100 percent urban) are two farms in EWG's Top 10: F & J Farms and Frymire Farms Inc. It's difficult to imagine what these farms are raising in this ZIP code, since the things that grow best here seem to be tall structures, including the Metcalfe and Kluczynski Federal Buildings. But these "farmers" are certainly raking in the cash.
Of course, individuals and farms aren't the only recipients of Washington's largesse. In fact, plenty of that funding is, literally, for the birds.
Seven "habitat foundations" made EWG's Top 40 list for Chicago subsidy recipients. These include the Green Wing Teal Habitat Foundation, Blue Wing Teal Habitat Foundation (why save birds with one wing color and not save birds with a different wing color?), Ringbill Habitat Foundation, Wood Duck Habitat Foundation, Gadwall Habitat Foundation, Pintail Habitat Foundation and Mallard Habitat Foundation. EWG says these conservation groups have pulled in more than a million dollars combined in federal farm subsidies the last three years.
All these groups have something in common: They're all part of the Wetlands Initiative, a non-profit organization founded in 1994 "to focus restoration efforts and funds on reversing the environmental damage created by the drainage of wetlands in the upper Midwest."
Now, it may be a great idea to protect wetlands. And, if private individuals want to come together and invest money for that purpose, more power to them. But that's not what's happening here. Instead, federal farm subsidies are being spent to take farmlands out of production and turn them into wetlands for waterfowl.
Not surprisingly, lawmakers don't like to talk about these projects when they discuss farm policy. Instead, they talk about how they're helping family farmers, the type of hardworking Americans who built this country. But the unfortunate fact about farm subsidies is that they go mostly to big agribusiness and politically connected individuals -- including many in Chicago and around the country.
And we taxpayers are picking up the bill. Farm subsidies cost the average household $216 in annual taxes along with $104 in higher food prices.
Money doesn't grow on trees. In fact, with farm subsidies, you don't even need soil to grow money -- just a willing federal government.
It's time to make America green, by ending foolish farm subsidies and once again giving our citizens the freedom to farm, without the meddling of a federal government that can't tell the difference between a city condo and a cornfield.
Ed Feulner is president of The Heritage Foundation.
First appeared in The Chicago Tribune