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KAI RYSSDAL: Almost $300-billion worth of crop subsidies and big-ticket government nutrition programs landed in the lap of the Senate Agriculture Committee today. It's officially called the Food and Energy Security Act -- you can just call it the Farm Bill, if you like.It covers everything from school lunches and food stamps to weather-related disaster aid for farmers.
It comes up for renewal every five years. Every time, the result is a legislative battle over the government's proper role in keeping food on American tables.
Marketplace's John Dimsdale reports from Washington this year is no different:
John Dimsdale: Healthy prices for most crops are generating strong profits for farmers right now, and those who'd like to wean growers from government support payments think the time is ripe for reform. But when he unveiled the Senate bill to the Agriculture Committee today, the chairman, Iowa Democrat Tom Harkin, did not list subsidy reform as an achievement.
Sen. Tom Harkin: It's a forward-looking bill that makes critical investments in energy, conservation, nutrition, conservation, rural development... and, I might add, better diets and health for all Americans.
Advocates of reducing subsidies, including a former Agriculture Committee chairman, Republican Richard Lugar of Indiana, expressed disappointment in today's Senate bill.
Sen. Richard Lugar: U.S. farm programs have cost taxpayers too much and hurt American agriculture in the process. Subsidy programs have spurred farm consolidation, violated international trade agreements and still left most farmers heavily exposed to risk.
Lugar will offer an amendment to replace subsidies with a broader crop insurance program that will pay all farmers -- not just those in the current program -- when they lose money. Another reform, to be offered by North Dakota Democrat Byron Dorgan, would cap subsidy payments at $250,000 per farm per year.
Sen. Byron Dorgan: This farm bill has become much more than a safety net for family farmers -- it's become a set of golden arches for some of the biggest set of corporate agri-factories in the country. And I think it has to stop.
Unlike the House-passed bill, which limits subsidies to farmers earning less than $1 million a year, the Senate keeps the current income cap of $2.5 million. The Senate bill does ban payments to people who can't prove they get most of their income from farming.
Critics want stronger limits on subsidies for wealthy farmers. They also say subsidies have for too long been concentrated on a few basic commodities, such as corn, wheat, cotton and soybeans. The Senate farm bill includes $2 billion for growers of fruits and vegetables -- assistance long advocated by Michigan Democrat Debbie Stabenow:
Sen. Debbie Stabenow: We know that part of where we need to go in the future around nutrition is to make sure we can grow those fruits and vegetables in the United States. Right now, we don't grow enough to meet our nutritional standards.
Environmentalists, too, are taking aim at farm subsidies:
Robert Bonnie: The farm bill is the most important piece of conservation legislation that will pass this decade.
Robert Bonnie with Environmental Defense is urging Congress to reduce subsidies and spend the savings on protecting rural land.
Bonnie: Crop subsidies often provide an incentive for land owners to take marginal grasslands or flood-prone lands and actually put them into crop production. Those things rob us of important wildlife habitat or water quality areas -- so subsidies can have a negative impact on the environment.
Subsidy defenders say they are a vital safety net for farmers who must endure dramatic swings in commodity prices from droughts, floods and infestations. The American Farm Bureau's Bob Young has been lobbying for farm subsidies for over 25 years. He says they get more difficult to defend as Americans leave their rural roots behind:
Bob Young: And the further we get away from just the reality of what it takes to make crop production, to make livestock production happen, the tougher it is. You know, you get suggestions and policy proposals from folks that have not a clue of what it takes to make this stuff happen.
Senate leaders are hoping to pass a farm bill this month, with an eye toward reconciling with the House-passed version and having a bill on the president's desk by the end of the year.
In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.