Tractors and farming equipment in West Texas.
Tractors and farming equipment in West Texas. Photographer: Eddie Seal/Bloomberg
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) and Hess Corp. (HES) 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
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,”
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 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 AM 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.”
To contact the reporter on this story:
Alan Bjerga in Washington at
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jon Morgan at
Article source: http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2012-04-05/texas-sized-safety-net-supports-county-voting-83-against-obama.html