Farm Bill Has Tough Row to Hoe

Spurred by consumer concerns about food safety and the impact of subsidies, lawmakers have proposed a raft of changes to the farm bill. Now President Bush is threatening to veto it over spending. We talk with Tom Philpott, food editor for the environmental news website Grist and small-scale organic farmer based in Valle Crucis, N.C.

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ALISON STEWART, host:

So how's the (unintelligible), our federal government agrees to make billions of dollars in safety-net payments to some business owners. No questions asked at the time when the industry happens to be already raking in some record profits. Well, those businessmen are America's soy, wheat, corn, cotton and rice farmers.

This year, the once-every-five-years farm bill, then going on since the '30s, is under serious scrutiny this year by people who think the system of subsidies needs reform. And considering some $288-billion worth of subsidies are being considered and debated by the Senate this week, we wanted to talk to someone who might get some of that money - maybe.

Tom Philpott, a small-scale organic farmer based in Valle Crucis, North Carolina. He's also the food editor for the environment news Web site Grist.

Hi, Tom.

Mr. TOM PHILPOTT (Farmer, Valle Crucis, North Carolina; Food Editor, Grist.org): Hi, guys.

STEWART: So let me learn a little bit about your farm. What are your main crops? What do you grow?

Mr. PHILPOTT: Well, my farm is really small. We're talking about 3 acres, and we grow all kind of vegetables - mostly salad greens, but we grow tomatoes, and summer squash, winter squash, garlic, spring onions - pretty much everything that you can grow in our climate. It's pretty high up. It has kind of a northern climate; we're up in the mountains.

STEWART: All right. So for a farmer, up in the mountains of western North Carolina, small scale - we heard what you grow - is there anything in the proposed farm bill that helps you out?

Mr. PHILPOTT: At this point, I don't really think so. There is a couple of billion dollars this year for the first time for specialty crops. And specialty crops turn out to be, what? People actually eat stuff like vegetables.

STEWART: That's just odd.

LUKE BURBANK, host: How novel.

STEWART: It's odd that's the specialty crops are vegetables.

Mr. PHILPOTT: Well. Right, it turns out that the subsidized crops are stuff that you eat - actually you can't eat. You can't eat the field corn grown in Midwest or the soy beans as they're grown. These are not edible by people. They have to be processed or fed to animal.

But specialty crops - they're stuff like vegetables - and for the first time, there's a couple of billion dollars go into them, but that money will mostly be concentrated in places like California where there's a really high scale of production, not for small farms like mine.

STEWART: Well, the president of the National Black Farmer's Association told the California paper because, obviously, they're watching this bill closely. That he thought the farm age to be for all farmers and not for those who are political savvy and not for those who hire law firms and form corporations and form partnerships and all this stuff.

He says everybody knows what's going on, including the leaders of the Senate, but they refuse to take on the interests of individuals and do the right thing and put a stop to it. Is he overselling the issue to you? Or do you think he's got a point?

Mr. PHILPOTT: I mean, I think he's got a huge point. I mean, black farmers in the United States were frozen out of farm programs from about the - basically from the '40s on when they started. And in that period we basically saw the disappearance of African-Americans farmers. There are very, very few left. And I think he's got a legitimate gripe. No question.

STEWART: Now, one of the reasons that you know so much about this - we should point out is that you're a part-time journalist and a part-time farmer. Your column - if you know - is billed as the only column on food politics. So as we listened to you just to be - for a full disclosure - are you neutral on this subject? Did you have a political leaning when it comes to the farm bill?

Mr. PHILPOTT: I've got a political leaning. It's a little bit different than most people because I do think that the subsidies are ridiculous, but I challenge the idea that eliminating the subsidies - and this is an idea that's very common in the (unintelligible) agri(ph) world and in an environmentalist world - the idea that if we eliminate the subsidies, a lot of the problems with agriculture in (unintelligible) in the United States will go away.

And I think that the fundamental problem of agriculture now is that we're overproducing these four or five crops and, you know, mostly corn and soy. And the thing - the way that agricultural works taking the subsidies away will likely not stop it from overproducing them because what happens in the Midwest is if you're a corn farmer with a couple of thousand acres, which is the pretty common situation in Iowa, literally the only - the infrastructure in the Midwest that's set up right now to where the only thing you can do is sell corn.

Now, if you decided to take 500 acres and put in vegetables, you would really have no way of marketing that right now because the, sort of, built infrastructure is corn elevators(ph) and stuff like that. And so I think we need to rethink ag(ph) policy and put back some of the controls that were taking away in the '70s that helped farmers manage overproduction.

STEWART: So you're saying that farmers really - if you want to make a living, you don't really have a choice.

Mr. PHILPOTT: Say it again.

STEWART: All right. Are you suggesting that farmers - some of their choices have been taken away by the way the system is set up?

Mr. PHILPOTT: Some of - yeah - some of their choices have been taken away. When the farm program first started in the '40s, the whole, sort of, goal of it was to help farmers manage overproduction because in the Great Depression, we had a huge amount of production of, you know, a few, you know, wheat corn and soy. And the market just fell out from the under it, and the price plunged.

And what farmers did was they kept - trying to produce more to make up on buying what they're losing on price. And so the farm bill came in and it wasn't really about subsidies at first. It was mostly about helping farmers manage supply.

Then that thing that you take some land out of the production, helping them store corn - and corn and wheat and stuff in good years. And so if you really had a good year instead of flooding the market with your corn or wheat or soy, the government would store some of it and that would make the price not fall quite as much.

STEWART: Yeah.

Mr. PHILPOTT: And farmers wouldn't have this motivations of planting yet more and more and more. In the '70s, all that changed. The policies of the '70s has been produce as much as possible.

STEWART: So what are things - before we wrap up - what are the things about this farm bill? People had hopes that it would change and it involve some other crops and that it would, sort of, modernize itself, sort of, take care of some of the issues that you were talking about. And there is $16 million for research in organic culture, and there's money for conservation in the bill and nutrition programs. Do you think they'll survive the ultimate debate?

Mr. PHILPOTT: Well, nutrition is going to huge. Nutrition is about two-thirds of that $280 million - or the $280 billion we're talking about. Conservation and stuff like that will survive the debate, but it probably wouldn't be funded at the levels that they're promising.

Whereas, the commodity title because it's a controversional one, is funded no matter what. Based on formulas? But the conservation programs have to fight for themselves every year in Congress. And they're always the first to go in budget crunches. And we're in a huge budget crunch right now.

STEWART: All right. So if people look forward and they read about this bill in the newspaper, they should look at conservation and commodity to (unintelligible) what the heck is going to happen.

Tom Philpott, food editor for the environment news Web site Grist and small-scale organic farmer based at North Carolina.

Thanks for joining us, Tom.

Mr. PHILPOTT: Thank you, guys.

BURBANK: Coming up on THE BPP, you think your team is good, whoever it is you're rooting for. Have they won 52 games in a row? Have they outscored their opponents by like 700-something to zero this year? If you're a fan of a one Kansas high school football team, the answer is yes. We're going to talk to the coach and the member of that team about the secret to their success.

STEWART: We also have The Most coming up, featuring one world leader telling another world leader to shut up.

Unidentified Man: Shut it.

STEWART: Shut it. Not even a street, not in a bar, right there, in front of all the other world leaders. It's The Most clicked on e-mailed news stories on the Web. Coming up, on THE BRYANT BRYANT PARK PROJECT from NPR News.

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