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MONTANA TOWNSHIP, WIS. - When Michele Bachmann is asked on the campaign trail about her ownership of a Wisconsin farm, she says federal payments to the family partnership have stopped and that she has never pocketed "a penny'' of the government subsidies she denounces.
But land records and interviews paint a picture that is more complete and more complicated.
The 949-acre spread in scenic Buffalo County -- owned since 2001 by a family partnership that includes Bachmann -- has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in subsidies over the years and still benefits from federal payments today through a neighbor who rents the land.
Moreover, federal subsidies have helped build the value of the sprawling property, which helps explain why Bachmann's stake is listed as the biggest unencumbered financial asset in her congressional disclosure form. At today's prices, the farm would fetch $3 million to $4 million, perhaps more, local real estate sources say.
"The real beneficiaries of farm subsidies are the people who own the land," said Craig Cox, a senior vice president at the Environmental Working Group, a nonprofit public interest group that studies farm programs.
Family farm partnerships are not unusual in the Midwest, especially when farmers want to pass along land to their children. They also are used commonly by elected officials to park their farm gains and keep them at arm's length, according to Kent Politsch, an executive with the U.S. Farm Services Administration (FSA) who handled inquiries about the Bachmann farm.
"There's so many ways that could be set up to keep the money out of their hands," he said.
Bachmann has said that the farm's founder, her father-in-law, Paul Bachmann, is the only member of the Bachmann Farm Family Limited Partnership who ever applied for farm subsidies -- a statement borne out by federal documents. He last applied for federal payments in 2007, and he died in 2009.
But federal documents and courthouse entries in Alma, Wis., show that a neighbor has picked up where the patriarch left off. The Bachmann family partnership signed a lease agreement with the neighbor in April 2008, and he is actively enrolled in the same FSA aid programs.
From 1995 through 2007, the FSA paid $259,000 in commodities and disaster subsidies to the Bachmann farm. Since 2008, FSA payments to the neighbor's expanded operations have totaled $52,921, records show.
The Bachmann for President team didn't respond to the Star Tribune's inquiries about the farm, but a campaign statement given to Politico last month said her share of income from the farm is wrapped up in the family partnership, which she said was formed for estate planning purposes. Bachmann, her husband, Marcus, and their five children belong to the partnership but documents don't say how much of it they control. Marcus has two brothers, and his mother, Elma, is still alive.
In a July interview with the Star Tribune, Marcus said he and Michele don't manage the farm and have never received cash from it. He said the farm was left to his mother, but he acknowledged its value as an inheritance.
"My father passed away two years ago," Marcus Bachmann said. "Any farm subsidy was his doing."
High commodity prices, without question, have contributed to the value of properties like the Bachmann farm. And as one of Wisconsin's finest deer hunting destinations, Buffalo County has another lacing of support for farmland values. But studies repeatedly have shown, and most economists agree, that the enduring safety net provided by federal farm subsidies props up farm prices, in rental agreements, as well as in land sales.
Michele Bachmann's most recent congressional disclosure forms, filed in August, show her farm stake to be worth as much as $1 million. Over the past four years, she also has disclosed combined "farm income" in the range of $36,000 to $117,500, but those payments are retained in the partnership, the statement to Politico said. The statement also said "income to the farm has been used to support Marcus' parents and also reinvested into the farm to support its operation.''
The Bachmanns have not disclosed details of the rental arrangement with their neighbor. But the register of deeds office in Buffalo County mails the annual property tax bill to Marcus at their family home on Stone Ridge Golf Course in Stillwater. And the farm could be renting today in the range of $80 a year per tillable acre. That would conform with the general rule of thumb in the region that ties local lease rates to the price farmers get for idling cropland in the federal Conservation Reserve Program.
Subsidies for milk, livestock, corn and other crops are a way of life on the farms of Buffalo County, a rich dairy region across the Mississippi River from Winona and Wabasha, Minn. The local FSA office prominently displays a sign saying local operators collected more than $6 million in federal payments in 2009 -- a bad year for milk prices.
The main subsidies on the Bachmann farm have been FSA's direct and countercyclical payment program (DCP) and milk income loss contract (MILC) program. The MILC program compensates dairy producers by the month when domestic milk prices fall below a specified price; the DCP sends farmers direct payments in the spring, when they often need cash.
At current prices, the Bachmann property could quickly fetch $3 million and possibly more than $4 million, if recent sales are any guide. In March, for instance, 202 acres of farmland in neighboring Waumandee Township sold in three separate parcels for an average of $5,681 an acre, state records show.
The Bachmann place, which once surpassed 1,200 acres in a county where the average farm is 250 acres, is still bigger than 95 percent of its neighbors, according to the 2007 Census for Agriculture. It is in Montana Township in the lush and deep Waumandee Valley.
The picturesque farm, which is anchored by a two-story house surrounded by more than a dozen barns and outbuildings, was founded 60 years ago by Paul and Elma Bachmann, sight unseen, when they immigrated to the United States aboard the Queen Elizabeth ocean liner. They were both from farm families in Switzerland, and Paul Bachmann went on to join the National Farmers Organization, a once-radical farmers union, according to his obituary in the Winona Daily News.
Michele Bachmann told the Star Tribune last year that she was proud of her in-laws for fleeing socialism in Europe.
She has her own connection to the farm that transcends money. In 1978, she and Marcus were married there in a religious ceremony conducted by elders of the Living Light Christian Fellowship, according to the couple's marriage certificate.
On one point, Bachmann has been unambiguous: Her opposition to federal farm subsidies. She voted against the last five-year farm bill in 2008. She was quoted by Gannett News Service in May 2008 as saying the bill "exemplifies the very worst of Washington's ways."
"It is loaded with unbelievably outrageous pork and subsidies for agricultural business and ethanol growers," she said. "Americans are being squeezed by taxes and rising living costs, and Congress wants them to pick up the tab for pet earmarks and wealthy landowners."
Marcus Bachmann has said he doesn't understand the paradox that people see in Michele owning part of a farm that benefits from subsidies while she votes her conscience against them.
"If she was out for her own gain, really, she would vote for farm subsidies," he said.
Staff writer Kevin Diaz contributed to this report. Tony Kennedy • 612-673-4213