It’s fall fest time, and the party’s on U.S.

Many pump­kins grown with pricey farm sub­si­dies

The Washington Times Weekly - - Culture, Etc. - BY DREW JOHN­SON

Fall is in the air, and lo­cal gov­ern­ments across Amer­ica are cel­e­brat­ing by us­ing tax dol­lars to help sub­si­dize ev­ery­thing from pump­kin patches, hay rides and haunted corn mazes to an event that would make “Mod­ern Fam­ily’s” Cameron Tucker proud: launch­ing Hal­loween pump­kins thou­sands of feet into the air.

What is sup­posed to be a scary sea­son for young trick-or-treaters has turned into a fright­en­ing time for tax­pay­ers, who crit­ics say seem to be get­ting a lot more tricks than treats for their money.

For th­ese fall-in­spired haunts, fed­eral, state and lo­cal gov­ern­ments share this week’s Golden Ham­mer for col­lec­tively lav­ish­ing mil­lions of tax­pay­ers’ hard-earned dol­lars bankrolling pump­kin farm­ers, agritourism ef­forts, fall fes­ti­vals and other ques­tion­able projects. The Golden Ham­mer is a mark of dis­tinc­tion awarded weekly to high­light waste, fraud and abuse of tax dol­lars.

Most of the fes­ti­vals and events fi­nanced by state and lo­cal tax dol­lars this time of year fo­cus on pump­kins, and many of those pump­kins are grown with the as­sis­tance of pricey farm sub­si­dies cour­tesy of the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture.

From 1995 to 2012, farm sub­si­dies to Amer­i­can pump­kin grow­ers came to more than $2 mil­lion, ac­cord­ing to USDA fig­ures com­piled by the En­vi­ron­men­tal Work­ing Group. Up un­til 2010, fed­eral pump­kin sub­si­dies av­er­aged about $75,000 a year. In 2011 and 2012, the two most re­cent years for which num­bers were avail­able, tax­payer hand­outs spiked to an av­er­age of $420,000 a year.

The $34,500 boost can be at­trib­uted to Mother Na­ture: Heavy rains and flood­ing de­stroyed thou­sands of pump­kins in the North­east in 2011 and 2012.

West Vir­gini­ans may be one of hap­pi­est states to hear that some pump­kins were sal­vaged from the storms. The state’s legislators ear­marked $13,000 in West Vir­ginia’s bud­get for this year’s edi­tion of the West Vir­ginia Pump­kin Fes­ti­val, in­clud­ing a $5,000 pay­out for ad­ver­tis­ing from the state tourism com­mis­sion and another $8,200 sub­sidy to help cover gen­eral ex­penses.

But that’s not all West Vir­ginia tax­pay­ers ded­i­cate to the chang­ing of the sea­son.

The Burling­ton Pump­kin Har­vest Fes­ti­val re­ceived $4,100 in state lot­tery money. The state bud­get awarded $4,125 to the Frank­ford Au­tum­n­fest and $2,200 to Prince­ton’s Au­tum­n­fest. Not to be out­done, the Wet­zel County Au­tum­n­fest snagged $4,500 in pub­lic funds.

More than $6,000 of West Vir­gini­ans’ dol­lars funded the Ken­ova Au­tumn Fes­ti­val, $4,300 went to the Rainelle Fall Fes­ti­val, and the Pratt Fall Fes­ti­val pock­eted $2,000.

In to­tal, Moun­tain State law­mak­ers de­voted nearly $75,000 to support 21 pump­kin par­ties and fall fes­ti­vals. Much of that money came from state lot­tery funds in­tended to help the be­lea­guered state send more of its stu­dents to col­lege and draw more busi­nesses and jobs to West Vir­ginia.

Amy Good­win, West Vir­ginia’s tourism com­mis­sioner, strongly de­fends the grants as money well spent.

“Th­ese fes­ti­vals are unique and embrace the spirit of our com­mu­ni­ties in the Moun­tain State,” she said. “They are a smart in­vest­ment to make. Cul­ture is high on the list of why peo­ple visit a place.”

She noted that travel and tourism rep­re­sent “a $5.1 bil­lion in­dus­try that fu­els 46,000 jobs” for the state and mar­ket­ing is es­sen­tial to the in­dus­try’s suc­cess. “With­out th­ese ef­forts, we wouldn’t see th­ese num­bers.”

Watch­dogs, how­ever, say tax­pay­ers should be wary of such claims.

“Sure, a fes­ti­val might at­tract tourist dol­lars to a given area, but if that’s the case, it should not be too dif­fi­cult to find pri­vate money to un­der­write the whole ac­tiv­ity,” said Pete Sepp, pres­i­dent of the Na­tional Tax­pay­ers Union. “West Vir­ginia should be es­pe­cially care­ful in hand­ing out pro­mo­tional dol­lars at pub­lic ex­pense, given other pri­or­i­ties that might need fund­ing.”

Fed­eral tax dol­lars also went to West Vir­ginia to fund fall ac­tiv­i­ties. The state Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture passed a $5,000 USDA grant to Cole Farms in the town of Jane Lew to “pro­vide a corn maze and pump­kin patch that was mar­keted to the pub­lic.”

Chunkin’ punk­ins

One thing West Vir­gini­ans don’t have to cel­e­brate the sea­son — that those in Colorado do — is an or­ga­nized pump­kin throw­ing contest, again cour­tesy of the tax­payer.

This week­end, Punkin Chunkin Colorado will take place in Aurora. At the event, which is un­der­writ­ten by lo­cal tax dol­lars, teams will com­pete us­ing huge air can­nons and sling­shots to de­ter­mine who can shoot a pump­kin the far­thest be­fore it splat­ters on the ground.

The city is on the hook for the $40,000 re­quired to put on the fes­ti­val. In a good year, when the weather co­op­er­ates, the city makes about three-quarters of its money, leav­ing tax­pay­ers to pick up a tab of $10,000 or so. In a bad year, tax­pay­ers have to pay thou­sands more to cover the event’s fi­nan­cial losses.

Gary Wheat, pres­i­dent of Visit Aurora, the city’s tourism or­ga­ni­za­tion, also de­fends the city’s spend­ing on Punkin Chunkin Colorado.

“The event is a great fam­ily event this time of year,” said Mr. Wheat, who es­ti­mates the attendance will be around 15,000 peo­ple. “Punkin Chunkin draws peo­ple from across the state, as well as other states like Wy­oming and Kansas.”

“The city has been very good stew­ards of tax dol­lars,” said Mr. Wheat. “A lot of the money we spend on the event trav­els back in from tourists.”

But the gov­ern­ment’s in­volve­ment in Punkin Chunkin Colorado puz­zles Jon Cal­dara, pres­i­dent of the Den­ver-based In­de­pen­dence In­sti­tute.

“In 44 years of liv­ing in this state, I’ve never once heard of Punkin Chunkin Colorado,” said the leader of the state’s free mar­ket think tank. “But it sounds cool enough that it shouldn’t need to be run by the gov­ern­ment. Pri­vate or­ga­ni­za­tions should be able to run it much bet­ter than the gov­ern­ment.

“If you look at Aurora’s city char­ter, I doubt that a core func­tion of gov­ern­ment is to shoot pump­kins thou­sands of feet through the air. That money, even if it’s just $10,000, could be much bet­ter spent on some­thing that ac­tu­ally is a proper func­tion of gov­ern­ment.” Some in Ten­nessee wouldn’t agree. Last year, the state’s corn mazes, pump­kin patches, haunted forests and hayrides shared $1.2 mil­lion in grant money funded by Ten­nessee tax­pay­ers for agri­cul­tural tourism.

An east­ern Ten­nessee business known as Old McDon­ald’s Farm col­lected a $10,500 grant to pay for a wagon and to buy sig­nage pro­mot­ing the farm’s corn maze. Ten­nessee tax­pay­ers also paid $15,000 to sub­si­dize a haunted corn maze, a “red­neck zom­bie” paint­ball at­trac­tion and a hayride at the Guthrie Pump­kin Farm and Corn Maze in Riceville, ac­cord­ing to records ob­tained by the Tax­pay­ers Pro­tec­tion Al­liance.

A sim­i­lar pro­gram in Ne­vada al­lowed $4,500 in state tax dol­lars to fund the Lazy P Ad­ven­ture Farm’s Fall Farm Fes­ti­val, state tourism doc­u­ments re­vealed. The fes­ti­val at the Win­nemucca farm in­cludes two corn mazes, a pump­kin patch, a pet­ting zoo, wagon rides and a hay maze.

Some crit­ics of us­ing tax dol­lars to sub­si­dize pump­kin patches, fes­ti­vals and other au­tumn events in hopes of draw­ing vis­i­tors and new res­i­dents is miss­ing the mark.

“The best ‘Wel­come’ signs a state can lay out is ‘Land of Lower Taxes,’” Mr. Sepp said. “And that starts with pri­or­i­tiz­ing ex­pen­di­tures.”

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Many of the pump­kins that are the cor­ner­stones of fall events fi­nanced by tax dol­lars were grown with the as­sis­tance of farm sub­si­dies.

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