STEVE INSKEEP, host:
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Here's something that President Bush and others regard as a missed opportunity. The farm bill that passed the House of Representative last week did not do away with farm subsidies, those government payments to farmers who grow crops like corn and cotton and wheat. Critics say, with prices for crops high right now, there's no need for subsidies.
But as Nebraska Public Radio's Sara McCammon reports, few farmers want to give up their subsidy safety net.
(Soundbite of machinery)
SARA MCCAMMON: It's a warm summer evening outside the Lynn Chris'(ph) farmhouse on a rural highway in south central Nebraska. Dressed in blue jeans and a grey polo shirt, Chris climbs in the red pickup truck he uses to get around his 1200 acres near Kenesaw, a town about 10 miles south of the shallow Platte River.
Mr. LYNN CHRIS: It is a constant struggle with keeping the weeds down at this time of year. And we're kind of in a transition phase so we don't have the help around the farm that we had in the past.
MCCAMMON: Chris could use the help come harvest time. While the growing season won't be over for several more weeks, he's hoping for a better-than-average yield. Long, even rows of corn stretch tall and green here this time of year, and many farmers are thrilled with strong commodity prices driven by the ethanol boom. But with all the ups and downs he's seen in more than 30 years of farming, Chris argues that farm subsidies are still needed, though he admits that making that case was easier five years ago, the last time Congress drafted a farm bill.
Mr. CHRIS: We did have extremely low prices, and it was real obvious to Congress that assistance was needed and we were running into a period of time or through a period of time where Congress was projecting a surplus.
MCCAMMON: This time, though, many crop farmers are getting higher prices than they've seen in years. Groups that want to hang on to the current system face critics on all sides. The Bush administration has called the House farm bill a missed opportunity for reform and threatened a veto. Environmental and anti-hunger groups say Congress should slash farm subsidies and redirect the money to food stamps and conservation.
Sandra Schubert, director of government affairs for the Environmental Working Group, complains that the farm bill just isn't doing enough for small family farmers.
Ms. SANDRA SCHUBERT (Director, Environmental Working Group): We should build a safety net to help the farmers that need it, not help agribusinesses when they're making millions of dollars and profits because of corn ethanol.
Mr. SAM WILLETT (Senior Director, National Corn Grower Association): We know that the prices are not going to stay where they are today.
MCCAMMON: Sam Willett is senior director of public policy for the National Corn Growers Association.
Mr. WILLETT: That's a very unpredictable situation, which more than merits a farm safety net that's made available through the farm bill.
MCCAMMON: Willett says what goes up often comes down. And farmers need the government's protection against risks other businesses don't face like the vagaries of weather.
Three or four hours northeast of Lynn Chris' farm, Keith Dithrick(ph) and his brother John raise corn and soybeans near the town of Tilden. While Dithrick agree that farmers need some sort of support system, he charges agribusiness with making big profits off the stable supply of commodities created by farm subsidies.
Mr. KEITH DITHRICK: It's up to our government to try to balance those interests. And they do that not just for producers, but they do that for the consumer who ultimately buys the products that farmers produce raw materials for.
MCCAMMON: Even so, Dithrick says, he'd probably support the House farm bill with its subsidy system over something that would gut the safety net.
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MCCAMMON: Back at Lynn Chris' farmhouse, the sun is setting as Chris lingers for a moment in the cab of his parked truck. He says the farm program isn't perfect, but it's worked well enough that change is likely to happen slowly. And, depending on what happens when the farm bill heads to the Senate in September, well enough might just have to be good enough for five more years.
For NPR News, I'm Sara McCammon in Lincoln, Nebraska.
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