Who gets federal farm subsidies? If your answer is “farmers,” Albuquerque television reporter Larry Barker has some news for you.

Barker, of local TV station KRQE, found that hundreds of people in Albuquerque alone get the subsidies without ever riding a tractor or sowing seeds — they receive subsidies simply because they own farm land. The government offers subsidies to people who own farms and are “actively engaged” in working it, but, effectively, the money goes to owners regardless of their day-to-day involvement in running their farmland.

New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall told Barker that billions of dollars go to people across the country who he thinks can’t legitimately be called farmers. Meanwhile, Don Carr of the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group said 82 percent of New Mexico’s working farmers don’t receive subsidies.

New Mexico’s state director for the USDA Farm Services Agency defended the federal subsidies, saying they’re given partly to mitigate financial risk, which is faced by farm owners whether they’re active farmers or not.

Congress is currently debating the Farm Bill, which sets up subsidy programs. Last month, the Senate passed a version that stops farm “managers” who don’t live or work on farms from receiving subsidies and also changes the subsidies’ overall structure. The bill, which is generally passed every five years, is facing pressure in a political climate focused on budget cutting.

Farm profits set records last year as worldwide demand pushed prices up, though droughts and unstable conditions in the global economy are creating uncertainty for many farmers this year.

Main photo credit: lmnop88a/Flickr