MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ANDREA SEABROOK, host:
And I'm Andrea Seabrook.
Here's something new in the massive farm bill the House of Representatives passed last week. For the first time, lawmakers set aside money for programs to help farmers who grow fruits and vegetables, produce for local markets. If the provision makes it into law, it will be a big victory for those pushing for more sustainable agriculture policies.
From Kansas Public Radio, Peter Hancock reports.
PETER HANCOCK: It's early on a Saturday morning at the farmers market in Lawrence, Kansas, and as usual, it's already bustling. Many of the 50 or so farmers here have been up since before dawn to pick their newly ripe tomatoes, zucchinis and watermelons before hauling them into town.
Stephanie Thomas(ph) sells fresh organic produce grown on her farm just south of here. But she's far from your typical Kansas farmer. Thomas didn't grow up on a farm and didn't start farming until later in life. And she said she owes it all to a small federally funded program called Growing Growers - a kind of internship program run by the Kansas and Missouri Extension Services.
Ms. STEPHANIE THOMAS (Produce farmer): I work on a farm full time, so I work with the farmers. I learned everything that they were doing. They gave me one-on-one instruction to, you know, with farm machinery, controlling pests, you know, biological things, and - then we also had a workshop every month that covered, you know, those topics in depth and pest management, you know, seed starting, things like that, and a stack of books this big from K-State that I use every single day, still.
HANCOCK: Growing Growers is one example of the kind of program that would benefit from a provision of the farm bill passed last week by the House. It provides $1.6 billion over five years to help these small-scale produce farmers. That's just a tiny fraction of the $280 billion in spending. Most of which would go for food stamps and traditional subsidies for commodities like wheat, corn and cotton. But advocates of shifting U.S. farm policy away from those subsidy programs hail it as a small step forward.
Dan Nagengast, who grows flowers and herbs on a farm south of Lawrence, argues that big subsidies have actually hurt American agriculture and the rural economy.
Mr. DAN NAGENGAST (Executive director, Kansas Rural Center): The subsidies, especially those that go to the very largest farms, allow them to overbid for rental crop acres, allows them to buy the bigger tractors which means they're continually on this treadmill of bigger tractors needing more land, being able to offer higher rents. And that means fewer farmers. I mean, that's sort of the recipe - fewer farmers, fewer schools, fewer businesses, all those sorts of things. And so the high subsidies meant a decline in rural towns.
HANCOCK: But more traditional farm lobby groups are opposing any major shift in farm policy that comes at the expense of big agribusiness. Kansas Farm Bureau president, Steve Baccus, argues that focusing local as opposed to global markets ultimately hurts consumers.
Mr. STEVE BACCUS (President, Kansas Farm Bureau): When your wife goes to the grocery store in the middle of the wintertime, she wants to be able to buy grapes and strawberries and peaches and lettuce and everything else. And if you go away from a large international market, then she's going to buy strawberries and peaches and lettuce during the very few short months of the year that that local market can produce it.
HANCOCK: It's expected that debate over the direction of farm policy will heat up even more as the bill now moves to the Senate. While advocates for small-scale farming - like those who grow tomatoes for your local farmers market -push for reform, others are pushing back. Groups representing traditional farmers who grow thousands of acres of wheat and corn will likely lobby hard to protect the subsidies that have benefited them for decades.
For NPR News, I'm Peter Hancock in Topeka.