Washington, D.C., doesn't have many farms, or farmers. Yet thousands of residents in and around the nation's capital receive millions of dollars every year in federal farm subsidies, including working-class residents in Southeast, wealthy lobbyists on K Street and well-connected lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
In neighboring Chevy Chase, Md., one of the nation's wealthiest communities, lawyers, lobbyists and at least one psychologist collected nearly $342,000 in taxpayer farm subsidies between 2008 and 2011, according to the watchdog group Open the Books.
Taxpayer subsidies were also paid out to Gerald Cassidy, the founder of one of Washington's most powerful lobbying firms, Cassidy & Associates; Charlie Stenholm, a former congressman; and Chuck Grassley, a Republican senator from Iowa. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack continues to receive subsides even though he has overseen the agency that pays them since 2009.
"All of it is entirely legal," said Adam Andrzejewski, founder of Open the Books, a group that created an online database and mobile app to track the subsidies.
The Department of Agriculture awarded nearly $178 billion in farm subsidies between 1995 and 2012, and another $39 billion in conservation subsidies, according to a second watchdog group, the Environmental Working Group.
Taxpayer subsidies to U.S. farmers predate the Great Depression, but the program has seen few reforms over the years and is now "out of control," Andrzejewski said. Billions once spent to keep family farms from going under now go mainly to agribusiness giants, like Monsanto and ADM, and to wealthy landowners who have never farmed.
To illustrate just how far the subsidy program has strayed from its original purpose, Open the Books calculated payments going to three major cities with few, if any, modern ties to farming: Washington, D.C., New York City and Chicago. Taxpayers sent $30 million to those residents over the past four years to compensate them for converting farmland to conservation areas and for growing soybeans, cotton, corn, rice and other crops.
The big-city farm subsidies show that savvy landowners are legally maximizing a return on their real estate investments at the expense of taxpayers, Andrzejewski said. They buy land, hire a farm manager and collect a check from the federal government, he said.
Open the Books found that subsidies flow into both working-class city neighborhoods and tony suburban neighborhoods, though poorer residents got far less taxpayer money than the wealthy and connected.
In the Fairlawn neighborhood in Southeast Washington, where the annual average income is about $20,000 -- compared to $106,000 in Chevy Chase -- residents collected a total of $10,000 in subsidies between 2008 and 2011, according to Open the Books.
Van Boyette, a lobbyist living in Washington's pricey Palisades neighborhood, gets a farm subsidy. The former aide to legendary Sen. Russell Long, D-La., who lobbied to help the sugar industry keep its subsidies, got $186,761 in federal farm payments between 2004 and 2012 for growing corn, soybeans and other crops, and for land conservation. But he gets it because he owns farmland in six different Iowa counties.
Gerald Cassidy, one of Washington's most successful lobbyists whose firm took in $9.2 million in 2013, part of it from agribusiness clients, has collected $41,000 in conservation subsidies since 1995 for a farm he owns in Dorchester County, Md., called Covey Point. Cassidy's aides failed to return phone calls seeking comment.
Some of the subsidies flowing into working-class neighborhoods, meanwhile, are so small, recipients can't remember receiving them.
Once a year, the mailman drops off a check at a modest brick home of Norma Brown in Fairlawn. The check, sent from the U.S. Treasury on behalf of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Commodity Credit Corp., is for $5.
The Browns don't farm. But they long ago inherited about three acres in Virginia from Norma's parents, land they have since given to a daughter.
"The property is not a farm," Norma Brown told the Washington Examiner. "It's just a house there and it's three acres of land, but nobody farms it."
Norma Brown filed forms long ago to let federal officials know no one was farming on the land, but USDA reports show that the government continued to send $5 checks to compensate the Browns for growing corn. Brown said she can't recall ever receiving the money.
Farm subsidies have long been a target for Capitol Hill budget hawks looking to reduce spending and rein in a $17 trillion national debt, and lawmakers this year are considering reducing or eliminating the money paid directly to farmers to supplement their income and shifting that aid to crop insurance programs that would protect farmers against losses.
"Congress is looking at how to get rid of the direct payment, but still have some life support for the farmer, because the farmer takes huge risks every season when he puts crops into the ground," a USDA official told the Examiner.
Among those seeking changes to the subsidy program is a lawmaker who receives subsidy money, Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, who proposed capping federal payments to $250,000 per couple per year.
Grassley's office defended the senator's work on a program from which he benefits.
"Senator Grassley brings real-life perspective to the problems farmers face," a spokesperson told the Examiner. "He still actively markets his crops, helps with the planting and harvesting, and flies home nearly every weekend to attend constituent events and maintain the family farm. He participates in farm programs the same as any other active participant on a farm does."
But the explanation for why Washington's movers and shakers get USDA subsidies is not necessarily that simple, or even nefarious.
Carl Thorsen was once a top aide to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas. Thorsen owns his own successful lobbying firm now and lives in Chevy Chase. He receives approximately $4,000 a year for converting into conservation land the 71-acre farm he purchased in Wyalusing, Pa., eight years ago.
Thorsen was eager to discuss the property and said the effort to turn it into conservation land by planting native grass as well as thousands of hardwood, apple and spruce trees has become an important family project.
"It's something that I'm passionate about," Thorsen said. "I don't golf, I plant trees."
Thorsen said he pours thousands of dollars into the project in amounts that far exceed the annual subsidy. "I really put my own resources and my own time into it."