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Small Payouts From Farm Safety-Net Programs Make Big Difference In Rural Schools

Cropland enrolled in safety-net programs sometimes generates cash for struggling schools.
Cropland enrolled in safety-net programs sometimes generates cash for struggling schools.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture will pay out almost $7 billion this year through two safety-net programs that offer farmers some assistance during tough financial times.

While most of it goes to farmers who grow corn, soybeans, wheat and other crops, K-12 public schools also get a sliver of the total payout. That’s a benefit for often rural districts that are struggling due to state legislatures trimming back their cut of education funding.

Both programs were created under the 2014 Farm Bill. They tie payments to the land, not the land owner or farm operator.

Typically, farmers and/or the landowners get the money for acres they enroll, though land owned by public entities — such as cities, counties and land-grant state universities — also are eligible. But cities and counties must pass on any payments to area schools.

Harvest Public Media received detailed breakdowns of program payments for two years through a Freedom of Information Act request. In 2015, the nationwide total for all public schools (including land-grant universities) for corn, wheat and soybeans acres enrolled in the Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC) and Price Loss Coverage (PLC) programs was $856,536. In 2016, that figure dropped to $118,665.

Here’s an example of how it works. The conservation board in Worth County, Iowa, manages land that is enrolled in the Agricultural Risk Coverage program. When the program’s calculations, which consider average county yield and price for a particular crop such as corn, trigger a payment, the money is transferred to the Northwood Kensett Community School District. In 2015, Worth County, which is near the Iowa-Minnesota border, received almost $4,000 in ARC payments.

Each state has a cap of $500,000 for such payouts, according to Kevin McClure, the chief program specialist at Iowa’s Farm Service Agency state office. That includes payments to land-grant universities, which often are the largest recipients of such payments, but McClure says he hasn’t heard of any state coming close to the limit.

It’s up to the school districts to decide what they do with the money. At Northwood Kensett,ecology students get to go on field trips to see Sandhill cranes in Nebraska or to the International Wolf Center in Ely, Minnesota, secondary-school principal Keith Fritz says.

“These activities are in addition to what we do in the classroom,” Fritz says. “They are related to, spring from, what we do in the classroom, but they are of a scope that is beyond our ability to provide.”

Clayton County in northeast Iowa owns about 100 ARC-eligible acres, county conservation director Jenna Pollock says. When payments come in, she says, the money is distributed to different schools each time to pay for field trips or special programs that often focus on sustainability.

Fritz says even though the funds are not part of Northwood Kensett’s regular budget and the amounts change year by year, he’s gotten used to them. And high school students taking the ecology class have, too.

“These (trips) have become, I suppose, an expected feature of the work they do in that class,” Fritz says.

But it’s wise for schools not to bank on the money always being there. That’s because work on a new four-year farm bill is expected to begin in early 2018.

Members of the House and Senate agriculture committees have said changes to the safety-net programs, including ARC, PLC, subsidized crop insurance and federal conservation programs, are likely. The Environmental Working Group has looked comprehensively at , including the ARC and PLC programs.

Follow Amy on Twitter:  @agamyinames .

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