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Senate Committee Debates Farm Bill

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Farmers who are not worried about drought may be thinking about the future of their support from the government.

Just as communist nations once had five-year plans for agriculture, the U.S. government has a five-year farm bill. Among other things, it sets payments to farmers, and that measure is up for a renewal, which is prompting critics to say it brings the same old subsidies to people who do not deserve them.

NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR: Ken Cook sits in front of a big computer screen in the Washington, D.C. office of the non-profit Environmental Working Group, which he heads. In the computer is a database of the recipients of taxpayer funded farm subsidies. Their addresses might surprise you.

Mr. KEN COOK (President, Environmental Working Group): Well, let's take a look at New York City. And all you need to do is either click on the map or type in the zip code and zoom in. And before you know it, you're seeing, on Google Maps, this detailed information about farm subsidy beneficiaries in the middle of New York City, right along Central Park, on both sides.

NAYLOR: Somebody's rooftop garden?

Mr. COOK: You might well wonder. You know, I spent a fair amount of time in New York, and I've never seen a combine during harvest season or a planter in the spring.

NAYLOR: And you could click on Los Angeles or Miami or any other large city, and the results would be the same: folks who might not know a furrow if they fell in one but who inherited or invested in property that was once farmed still get farm payments from the government.

Democratic Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa, who chairs the Senate Agriculture Committee, says it's appalling.

Senator TOM HARKIN (Democrat, Iowa): I think it's a black eye for all of us in agriculture when payments are going out to dead farmers, people who don't even farm, and when mega payments go out to people who aren't even farming the land, yet because they own the land they're getting money. And it's just not right.

NAYLOR: There is a lot that's not right with current farm legislation, say its critics. Just about a third of all U.S. farmers get subsidies - those who grow commodity crops like corn, soy beans, rice and cotton. And of them, just a fraction - 10 percent - get most of the money. And those subsidies, what's been dubbed red state welfare, continue to flow, even though American farmers are prospering as never before.

Ken Cook.

Mr. COOK: Record farm income is projected over $87 billion, and we'll still be under the current law if we extend it. If we have a status quo bill, we'll be giving $5 billion a year in automatic subsidies to those same farmers.

NAYLOR: Harkin is trying to reduce those automatic payments. The bill he's bringing up today would take some of the money from direct payments and put it into conservation and rural development. But even a powerful committee chairman with lots of seniority in Congress can only do so much.

Sen. HARKIN: You got to remember, farm bills don't make sharp turns. I'm just trying to bend the rails a little bit and get it moving a little bit in a different direction.

NAYLOR: Harkin is not alone in his efforts to reform the subsidy system. Iowa's other senator, Republican Charles Grassley, a farmer himself, wants to cap the amount of payments a farmer can receive at $250,000. Grassley says it's crucial to maintain support from non-farm states for the program.

Senator CHARLES GRASSLEY (Republican, Iowa): It's pretty hard for me to explain somebody in New York that 10 percent of the biggest farmers ought to get 72 percent of the benefits that New Yorkers are paying into the farm program and subsidizing big farmers to get bigger.

NAYLOR: But Grassley's effort as well as other attempts to reduce farm subsidies will be fought by many farm state senators with the backing of the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Tara Smith is director of Congressional Relations for the farm bureau, which calls itself the voice of agriculture. She says even though times are good for farmers now, they may not last.

Ms. TARA SMITH (American Farm Bureau Federation): This is a five-year bill. Prices are great now, but we have all seen market prices collapse. We have - we know that markets are cyclical. Those prices are going to come down eventually, and we need to have a plan in place to take care of U.S. farmers when that happens.

NAYLOR: The House has already passed its own farm bill, largely preserving the status quo and leaving critics little hope of significant change until the next farm bill five years from now.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol.

INSKEEP: The farm bill affects everything from what we eat to how we trade with other nations. And you can read about what this bill does and why it's controversial at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.