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One big job for Congress this year is an update of federal farm programs, including crop subsidies. In this year's bill, fruit and vegetable farmers will be getting more of the help that growers of cotton and corn have had for decades.
NPR's Andrea Seabrook reports on that and other changes in the works.
ANDREA SEABROOK: It may sound like another dry hearing on Capitol Hill - 44 members of Congress in suits guzzling their Starbucks and sifting through stacks of amendments.
Unidentified Man #1: All in favor signify by saying aye. Opposed. Amendment's adopted.
(Soundbite of gavel)
Unidentified Man #1: Now further amendments.
SEABROOK: But this session is making big news around the country, especially in rural areas where the farm bill will dictate the next five years of federal policy for food growers and producers.
(Soundbite of TV show, "AgriTalk")
Unidentified Woman: (Singing) AgriTalk, AgriTalk.
Unidentified Man #2: Live from the heartland in the banks of the Mississippi River, this is "AgriTalk." "AgriTalk" is brought to you by the National…
Unidentified Man #3: To find out what the specially growers would like to see in this next farm bill.
Unidentified Man #4: The House version of the new farm bill may go to the floor of the House for the program to give farmers the option of revenue-based payment program.
SEABROOK: 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. That's everything from methane from cow manure to planting switchgrass, and especially corn to make ethanol. That's been sold as a means toward energy independence.
Lawmakers from corn-farming states love this, but that's not everyone in Congress. Republican Virginia Foxx of North Carolina says giving up 20 percent of America's corn crop to make ethanol has unintended consequences, like spiking the cost of livestock feed. Foxx says chicken farmers in her district are getting hit hard.
Representative VIRGINIA FOXX (Republican, North Carolina): One chicken consumes one bushel of corn a year. For farms housing 100,000 laying hens, the cost of feeding them goes up $100,000 in one year if the price of corn goes up one dollar.
SEABROOK: One big change or, rather, change back in the farm bill has to do with inspection of food imports. After 9/11, the screening duties were away from the Department of Agriculture and given to the new Department of Homeland Security, which, says California Democrat Dennis Cardoza, wasn't really focused on things like infiltrating insect species.
Representative DENNIS CARDOZA (Democrat, California): The transfer to Homeland Security was an absolute disaster. Homeland Security was only looking for two-legged terrorists and not the six-legged terrorists. And the management of this program under the new department has been abysmal.
SEABROOK: This farm bill would give inspection duties back to USDA. The farm bill 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. For example, those who produce their own fertilizer are finding that the dregs of the giant vats they use — called anhydrous tanks — are being siphoned off by trespassers.
The reason? A byproduct of the fertilizer process is a sludge that contains methamphetamine, used to make crystal meth. Iowa Democrat Leonard Boswell introduced a measure that would pay farmers to include additives in their fertilizer tanks that destroy the drug.
Representative LEONARD BOSWELL (Democrat, Iowa): I can tell you this, we've tried it and it works, and it's a good thing to do. The anhydrous tanks, many of us that are active farmers realize it's a source of supply for people that want to make this terrible, awful, awful, awful product.
SEABROOK: This bill still has a ways to go in the House and Senate and a lot of negotiations to weather before it becomes law. It's scheduled for its big moment on the House floor later this month.
Andrea Seabrook, NPR News, Washington.
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