Farm Bill Offers Aid to Fruit, Vegetable Growers

One big job for Congress this year is an update of federal farm programs, including crop subsidies. This year, fruit and vegetable farmers will be getting more of the help that growers of cotton and corn have had for decades.

In rural areas, the farm bill will dictate the next five years of federal policy for food growers and producers.

Here are the headlines: Big crops and products — like dairy, corn, soybeans and wheat — will still get federal subsidies. Some get a little boost. And now, growers of fruit and vegetables will be able to tap into a new $1.8 billion pot of cash.

Many new initiatives in the bill fund research and programs for farm-based biofuels, including everything from making methane out of cow manure to planting switchgrass — and especially, growing corn to make ethanol, which has been promoted as a means toward energy independence.

Lawmakers from corn-farming states love the emphasis on that crop, but they don't represent everyone in Congress.

Rep. Virginia Foxx, a North Carolina Republican, says giving up 20 percent of America's corn crop to make ethanol has unintended consequences, like spiking the cost of livestock feed.

Chicken farmers in Foxx's district are getting hit hard, she says:

"One chicken consumes one bushel of corn a year," she says. "For farms housing 100,000 laying hens, the cost of feeding them goes up $100,000 a year if the cost of [a bushel of] corn goes up by one dollar."

One big change is actually a change back with regard to the inspection of food imports.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, screening duties were taken away from the Department of Agriculture and given to the new Department of Homeland Security.

But Rep. Dennis Cardoza, a California Democrat, says Homeland Security inspectors weren't really focused on things like infiltrating insect species.

"The transfer to Homeland Security was a disaster," he says. "Homeland Security was only looking for two-legged terrorists, not six-legged terrorists. The management of the program under the new department has been abysmal."

This farm bill would give inspection duties back to USDA.

The measure also includes hundreds of millions of dollars in grants for research, conservation, and technical upgrades for rural America. Hundreds of other provisions would change the way farmers work in small but important ways.

The bill still has a lot of negotiations to weather before it becomes law. It is expected to reach the House floor later this month.

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