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New Farm Bill Has Its Share Of Complications


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Rachel Martin. This coming week, the U.S. Senate is expected to devote a lot of time debating a controversial and complicated issue - not the war in Afghanistan, not the financial crisis in Europe. It's the farm bill. Yes, it is a bill about farmers and agriculture but it's much bigger than that, touching on everything from nutrition programs in schools to food stamps. The farm bill comes up for renewal every five years and it costs hundreds of billions of dollars. Coming up, we'll head to Georgia, where many peanut farmers are opposed to the new bill. First, NPR's Tamara Keith is covering the farm bill debate, and she joins us now with a rundown. Tamara, let's start first with the basics. Just how big is this bill and what is it supposed to do?

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: Well, physically, at the moment, it is just about a thousand pages long, and that could change as the amendment process goes along. Its price tag is $970 billion, but the bill's authors are quite proud to say that it actually cuts the deficit by $23 billion, which is a big change for farm bills. They are typically all about spending and not really about saving. It's just one of these massive bills that does a little bit of everything for just about every constituency you can imagine.

MARTIN: So, when I think farm bill, I'm thinking, oh, this is all about farmers. Why should Joe Schmoe out in the middle of the country who isn't connected to agriculture care about this, but you're saying there are reasons.

KEITH: There are reasons. Well, first, it's a big, big amount of money. But the other thing is that actually the majority of the spending in this bill goes to food stamps. It also provides money for things like farmers markets, food banks, rural business development, research. It's not just crops.

MARTIN: I want to get back to that $23 billion in savings that you talked about. Where is that supposed to come from?

KEITH: So, there are some cuts to rural development and actually some small cuts to food stamps, including a provision that says lottery winners can't get food stamps if they win big in the lottery. And $6 billion comes from consolidating a bunch of conservation programs - taking out redundancy, they say. But the biggest cuts by far are the ones known as direct payments to farmers. Past farm bills actually paid farmers money whether they planted any crops or not. And some of them were very wealthy people, which created PR problems for the farm bill. So, there are probably some growers out there who don't want these direct payments to go away but they're not making any noise about it. The Senate bill replaces some of that sort of safety net. Instead of having direct payments, they're going to expand crop insurance programs. And this is where you find the greatest controversy in the bill.

MARTIN: OK. So, if farmers aren't complaining, where is the controversy coming from? Where are the objections coming from?

KEITH: First, there are quite a few groups that say this is just a new great big giveaway to farmers who don't necessarily need it. Agriculture is one of the real bright spots in this economy. Farmers have been doing very well in recent years. And this insurance doesn't just cover crops for losses. Farmers can buy revenue insurance, meaning that they are guaranteed to make a certain amount of money where they end up with low yields or whether there are high yields and that brings commodity prices down. Either way they're guaranteed to make money. And it reduces risk but it puts all that risk on taxpayers. And there are also objections coming from Southern state farmers who say that this expanding insurance program won't work for them. They say it's designed for corn and wheat farmers in the Midwest, not peanut and cotton and rice farmers in the South.

MARTIN: So, Tamara, what do all these objections mean for the farm bill's chances of actually becoming law?

KEITH: It has a ton of momentum right now in the Senate. And the fascinating thing about the farm bill is that its politics are not partisan, they're regional. And so in the Senate it's moving. Southern states don't have a ton of influence in the Senate. In the House, the Southern states do have more influence. And so the House is likely to come up with a substantially different version that addresses some of the concerns of Southern state farmers regarding the crop insurance. And also, there are more deficit hawks in the House. So, they're likely to make much larger cuts to food stamps. They need to come up with something by September 30th. That's when the current farm bill expires. If they fail to come up with a deal, they likely will do some sort of an extension.

MARTIN: NPR's congressional reporter Tamara Keith. Thanks so much, Tamara.

KEITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.