Year after year, the federal government sends farm subsidy checks to homes nestled in some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the city, far from any corn or soybean field.

The urban payments total millions of dollars out of the nearly $1 billion sent to Minnesota farmers in 2005, according to federal records sent to the Star Tribune under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Among those taking farm bill checks: Cargill family member Whitney Macmillan Jr. and money manager Noel Rahn, a wealthy businessman who helped bring the NHL back to Minnesota.

The flow of federal largesse comes thanks to rules that allow landowners -- including some 2,000 in the metro area -- to collect subsidies without farming the land themselves, a legal and increasingly common practice as farm ownership has consolidated over the past few decades.

This week, Congress will take the final steps toward passage of the farm bill, ending months of debate over subsidy payments. A modest reform plan was introduced by the Senate Agriculture Committee last week as it sent a five-year, $280 billion package to the Senate floor. But if past history is any guide, it seems unlikely the new bill will differ much from the old.

Still, an analysis of payments made to Minnesota farmers -- many of them living in the Twin Cities, some of them corporations such as Cargill, which received $51 million in cotton subsidies during 18 months beginning in 2005 -- reveals many of the weaknesses in the federal program.

The safety net begun seven decades ago to help farmers pull out of the Dust Bowl today includes payments to wealthy farmers, to nonfarmers who use the land as an investment subsidized by taxpayers and to farmers who rarely visit the farms they own.

When he was a member of the state Senate, Clarence Purfeerst was known for his malapropisms. The DFLer originally from Faribault once said as a matter was postponed: "We'll just let our predecessors figure it out."

Purfeerst, who did not return calls from the Star Tribune, earned $113,350.54 in 2005 and the first six months of 2006, according to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which administers the subsidies programs. The 79-year-old St. Paul resident claims farmland in Rock County in the far southwest corner of the state.

He's among 2,000 residents of Minneapolis and St. Paul who received subsidy checks during the 18-month period. Rahn did not return calls, and Macmillan declined to discuss his payments.

Some recipients do farm. Others, including financier Irwin Jacobs, get money through conservation programs meant to save land from farming, according to a USDA database.

Still many recipients earn payments for farms far beyond the state borders. A cluster of homes near Lake Harriet last year collected checks for farms in Wisconsin, Iowa, Kansas and Louisiana. Most of the payments were relatively small, at several thousand dollars a year.

Each recipient must file paperwork with the county office of the Farm Service Agency to justify receiving subsidy payments, but that paperwork is confidential, according to the FSA state director.

Subsidies contributed 20 to 25 percent of a Minnesota farm's net income last year, according to a database kept by agricultural economist Robert Craven at the University of Minnesota.

(Craven, who lives in St. Paul, farms corn and soybeans in Jackson County and collected $156,000 in farm subsidies.)

The Washington debate comes amid one of the best years for corn farmers in Minnesota and elsewhere. Crop prices are high, predictions call for a record harvest, and the biofuels industry has cushioned agriculture with more profits.

"Last year was very good, this year is better than last year, but the previous eight years I barely broke even," said Mark Brunsvold, a farmer with land in Iowa and a house in Minneapolis, who collected $84,362 in federal subsidies in an 18-month period. "The bubble is going to burst on this ethanol thing."

Legislators have been trying to rein in so-called urban farming for decades. In 1987, Congress passed the Farm Program Payments Integrity Act, which required subsidy recipients to be actively engaged in farming by contributing equipment and labor or management of the farm.

"The original intent was certainly to support active, practicing farm operations," said Tim Penny, the former southern Minnesota congressman who debated farm bills of the past when he was a DFLer.

But a 2004 government study found that some people were collecting payments by calling themselves managers because they participated in an annual conference call.

"There's loopholes in every single provision," said Loni Kemp, of the Minnesota Project, a St. Paul nonprofit.

Most farmers take money from several programs, some of which are tied to yields and prices. Yet no matter how well they do, farmers can count on receiving a "direct payment" from the USDA, again, thanks to earlier reform efforts.

The payments, which weren't tied to current production or prices, making them more agreeable to international trade provisions, were heralded in 1996 as the end of traditional farm subsidies. The direct payments would phase out over several years and eventually make American agriculture subsidy-free.

Soon after the law passed, however, crop prices fell and Congress opted to restore traditional subsidy programs on top of the direct payments, which were never phased out.

"They're indefensible," said Penny, the former congressman, who more recently has been pushing for meaningful reform.

But despite months of debate, Congress appears headed toward the status quo. The most meaningful reform passed by the Senate Agriculture Committee last week, known as Average Crop Revenue, has the government paying farmers if their state's if average crop revenues fall below a historic average. But the program would be optional for farmers and saves just $4 billion over five years. That's 1.4 percent of the farm bill's price tag.

Matt McKinney • • 612-673-7329 Glenn Howatt • • 612-673-7192