RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
The most important legislation for the nation's food and farming is being debated in the Senate this week. Long considered untouchable, the new Farm Bill has some big changes. Lawmakers aim to save more than $23 billion over the next 10 years, in part by getting rid of direct payments that give farmers a check for ever acre. That one program cost taxpayers $5 billion a year. Subsidies would be replaced by crop insurance and revenue protections in case of falling prices.
Corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest generally support the new bill, but there's strong resistance to it in the South from peanut, cotton and rice farmers. We have reports from both sides, beginning with Jonathan Ahl in Iowa.
JONATHAN AHL, BYLINE: Larry Sailer is pretty typical here. He farms about 400 acres of corn and soybeans, and the past few years have been very, very good for him, with corn selling at $6 a bushel and soybeans at about $13 per bushel, leading to record profits. But he still has some worries. On this windy June day, he walks around his soybean field just outside of Iowa Falls, pointing out how the rows of plants that are peaking just a few inches out of the ground are at very different heights from row to row. He blames the warm winter in Iowa that didn't produce the regular freeze and thaw cycle before spring planting.
LARRY SAILER: It was really hard to set the planter at one setting, because it just seemed like there was different areas in the field that were just like concrete, and it was hard to get the seed into the ground to the right depth. So it kind of has led to a very uneven crop.
AHL: Sailer says the lack of rain in Iowa is also a concern. But he concedes that corn and soybean farmers have it pretty good, and he's fine with losing the direct payments that give him thousands of dollars each year, regardless if he plants anything at all.
SAILER: The direct payments and all that other stuff has probably got to go by the wayside, anyway. So if we're going to cut it somehow, that's one of the things that probably should be cut.
AHL: But Sailer says corn and soybean farmers still need federal crop insurance in case of natural disasters, and revenue assurances to protect them from a market collapse. Chris Petersen, president of the Iowa Farmers Union, says it's shortsighted to think the markets will always be this strong.
CHRIS PETERSEN: History repeats itself. I don't know how far a slide we are going to go down, with corn prices and bean prices and everything else that will follow. We're starting that slide down, and it might come to a point in time where, you know, it could get bad again.
AHL: Petersen has farmed just outside of Clear Lake, Iowa, for more than 40 years. He says there are always farming booms and busts. The USDA recently predicted corn prices will fall to four-and-a-half dollars per bushel in the next 18 months. Independent of what commodities are selling for, some say it's time for farmers to wean themselves off of government assistance. Bruce Babcock is an economist specializing in agriculture at Iowa State University. He says corn and soybean growers simply don't need the government's help.
BRUCE BABCOCK: Farmers really do like taxpayer subsidies. But it's not like they're going to go out of existence if they don't get them, regardless of what prices or profitability does. We're all going to eat. The food supply is not going to be in any danger. It's just a matter of, do you want to subsidize farmers? And the Congress wants to subsidize farmers.
AHL: Back in Larry Sailer's barn in northern Iowa, he says he finds Babcock's assessment a bit off-base.
SAILER: I don't think anybody can actually make that statement. The way things look right now, it should stay fairly good. But all it takes is one act of Congress or one world event to totally change that - or, for instance, if we'd have a drought.
AHL: And the dry weather in Iowa so far this summer and those uneven soybean rows has Sailer glad he has the federal government's help this season, just in case. And he wants to see a farm bill in place that will continue those programs in some manner in the future, even for corn and soybean farmers that have done very well indeed over the past few years. For NPR News, I'm Jonathan Ahl in West Des Moines, Iowa.