Plowing familiar ground
A farmer plows a field near the town of Arvin, Calif.
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KAI RYSSDAL: If it seems sometimes the same old story keeps coming up again and again in Congress, you are not far from wrong. Every five years, law makers take up the same bill. It deals with everything from foodstamps to sugar tariffs.
It's called the farm bill. The current version expires this fall. So today, the House of Representatives began the byzantine negotiations that are aimed at renewing the $215 billion package. From Washington, Marketplace's John Dimsdale reports Congress is paying early attention to farm subsidies.
JOHN DIMSDALE: The first programs up for debate are those to conserve farmland and encourage better environmental practices. The White House-backed version of the farm bill would cut commodity subsidies by $4.5 billion over 10 years — while boosting conservation programs by nearly $8 billion.
That's fine with Ken Cook, the president of the Environmental Working Group.
KEN COOK: Conservationists over the years have focused on farm subsidy programs, trying to reform them and shift more of the money that we spend now paying farmers for how much they grow to paying farmers for how they grow crops — with fewer inputs, more careful use of nutrients, better planning of their land so that they're protecting wildlife habitat and sparing wetlands from damage.
With support from vegetable and produce farmers who don't benefit from current subsidies, environmental groups are optimistic this year's farm bill will shift resources to more sustainable farming practices.
Sugar users are also eager to change the farm bill, which now limits sugar imports, inflating the price. A coalition of candy, soft drink and cereal manufacturers has new arguments for getting rid of the import limits.
Rick Pasco of the Sweetner Users Association says there was a severe sugar shortage after hurricanes damaged Gulf Coast cane farms and refineries.
RICK PASCO: We had willing buyers and sellers, but because the program operated, we weren't able to get our hands on sugar that we need to make various products.
By July 1, the House Agriculture Committee hopes to work its way through all nine sections of the farm bill, including energy and rural development.
In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.