SIOUX FALLS - Three of the four candidates in the U.S. House race in South Dakota have close ties to federal farm subsidies, even as the issue of growing federal deficits emerges as a central issue in the campaign.
The subsidies have been a favorite target of budget hawks who complain they're pork barrel spending that aid wealthy farmers and distort market prices. But they also have the solid backing of rural-state lawmakers - both Republicans and Democrats - who argue they're an important safety net for America's farmers.
That support for farm subsidies is likely to continue from South Dakota's lone U.S. House seat, regardless of who wins in November.
State Rep. Kristi Noem, R-Castlewood, is a partner in the Racota Valley Ranch, which received almost $3 million in subsidies from 1995 to 2008, according to figures compiled by the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit organization that collects and analyzes farm subsidy data. As of 2009, Noem had a 16.9 percent ownership stake in Racota Valley.
Her brothers and mother bought her out last year, she said.
Democratic Rep. Stephanie Herseth Sandlin's father, former state lawmaker Ralph Lars Herseth, received $929,347 from 1995 to 2008. Herseth Sandlin said she has not directly benefited from her family's subsidies.
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Secretary of State Chris Nelson said he received a modest amount of subsidies in the past, but not since about 2001. His late father, Myrle Nelson, received $62,224 in subsidies from 1995 to 2003, the year he died.
The only candidate in the race who doesn't have a tie to subsidies is state Rep. Blake Curd, R-Sioux Falls, a surgeon.
Curd, Nelson and Noem are seeking the Republican nomination to challenge Herseth Sandlin in November. But don't look for agriculture subsidies to be a big point of contention, says one political science professor.
"I'm guessing that while agriculture subsidies are sometimes a slightly guilty secret for some farmers, I can't imagine they would be easy to use as a political weapon," said Ken Blanchard of Northern State University.
Many candidates for office in South Dakota have ties to subsidies, especially when family members are factored in. Subsidies are a part of life here, and somebody who criticizes them risks irritating the agriculture industry, Blanchard said.
Like the other Republicans in the race, Noem has entered because she opposes recent federal spending policies. But when it comes to farm subsidies, she said they're necessary to the country's ag sector. They preserve the industry, which makes the country more secure. South Dakota in particular has experienced disasters, and Racota Valley has benefited from disaster assistance.
"Obviously, with agriculture being such an important industry in the state, people need safety nets," she said.
Herseth Sandlin gets credit for helping craft the 2008 farm bill, a multiyear funding bill that included money for food stamps, nutrition programs and subsidies for farmers, including conservation and disaster assistance. The safety net provides American consumers with a stable and abundant supply of safe foods, she said.
"I think the American taxpayer is getting a very good return for their investment," she said.
The $290 billion bill included subsidy cuts, and it struck a "very good balance" among the different programs it funds, she said.
"The 2008 farm bill was fully offset," Herseth Sandlin said. "It was fully paid for. It didn't add a dime to the deficit."
But critics say America's farming policy favors large corporate farms at the expense of smaller farms, and that hurts rural America. The bulk of the subsidies go to corn, cotton, rice, soybeans and wheat.
Don Carr, spokesman for the Environmental Working Group, knows subsidies are a powerful issue in South Dakota. A South Dakota native, Carr worked for the state Democratic Party and on former Sen. Tom Daschle's 2004 re-election campaign.
The Environmental Working Group agrees farmers need a safety net, he said, but the policy encourages consolidation and ensures profits for corporate farms. And while America's farm policy has enjoyed wide support in the past, people are getting nervous about the federal debt.
"I do think the message is clear that everybody is going to have to tighten their belts in terms of the budget," Carr said.
It's clear, Nelson said, that federal spending needs to be cut. But farmers still need a safety net, and one part of the country can't get a better deal than South Dakota.
"As a congressman, my job is to make sure that it is absolutely fair, and that South Dakota ranchers and farmers are treated fairly in the process," he said.
Curd notes that farm subsidies are only a small part of the budget, and agriculture is the state's biggest industry. That industry needs to stay competitive.
"There are myriad number of ways to figure out how to reduce spending, that's for sure," he said.