MELISSA BLOCK, host:
Next week, the Senate takes up a huge farm bill. In the past, these bills have been criticized for direct payments to farmers who grow just a few crops such as cotton, corn and soybeans. That's likely to continue. This time around, there will also be more money for research and education to help farmers who raise fruits and vegetables.
As NPR's Chris Arnold reports, growers say that is sorely needed.
CHRIS ARNOLD: Many economists for years have rolled their eyes over the U.S. farm bill because they say it makes no sense to spend billions of dollars a year writing big checks to farmers who grow just a handful of so-called commodity crops. Most of the money goes to very large farms, and they say spending so much on what are basically handouts sucks money away from much more effective research, pest management and other efforts.
Mr. CHUCK SOUTHER(ph) (Apple Farm Owner): Are you jugging or are you counting?
Ms. DIANE SOUTHER(ph) (Apple Farm Owner): I'll count.
ARNOLD: At their apple farm in Concord, New Hampshire, Chuck and Diane Souther are filling half gallon jugs of freshly pressed cider. The juice flows from the press vat into a stainless steel trough with fill tubes coming off it.
(Soundbite of flowing cider)
Ms. SOUTHER: You know, it's got nice color. Everybody's asking for it.
Mr. SOUTHER: Yeah.
ARNOLD: The Southers don't grow so-called commodity crops like soybeans or wheat so they don't get those subsidy checks from the government. But the new farm bill will likely add at least some more funding for research to help farmers more broadly. You can see the impact of such research here at this orchard. The trees have gotten a lot smaller.
I visited during the peak season this fall, Chuck Souther hops in a golf cart and drives us pass tiny trees laden with fruit. They almost look more like big tomato plant.
When you think about apple tree, you think of a big old apple tree with eight apples on it. Here, you got - you know, there's so many of these smaller trees that are just full of apples, right?
Mr. SOUTHER: That's been a change that has occurred over the years. Through research, we've determined that sunlight will penetrate about three feet in the canopy of a tree. So if you picture, you know, the big rounded tree and then you draw or shade in, you know, three feet in from that tree, you'll find out there's a large portion of that tree that's just not very productive.
ARNOLD: So Souther says where he used to have 40 big apple trees, he now has 400 that produce a lot more fruit. The apples are still McIntosh or Golden Delicious, but the trees are grafted on to dwarf root systems to stunt their growth. Such research is often supported by federal and state money. Souther says he also used to get help from a researcher who is studying a particularly pesky weevil that likes to lay eggs in his apples. But the funding for that has dried up.
Dr. DANIEL SUMNER (Agricultural Economist, University of California, Davis): The federal funding is key for these RNDs that have a broad public purpose.
ARNOLD: Daniel Sumner is an agricultural economist at the University of California, Davis. He says research that boosts productivity is vital. That's for farmers, consumers, and also for people on the third world, where such breakthroughs can traumatically reduce the cost of staple crops. He says the private sector invests a lot of money in things that are profitable, like genetically modified corn and soybeans, but there are many other needs, especially for small farmers that nobody but the government will pay for.
Dr. SUMNER: You know, if you've got your five acres of apples, you're not going to hire 40 researchers to think about apple breeding.
ARNOLD: But Sumner says the federal government spends 10 times as much money on direct subsidy checks to farmers as it spends on RND. Sumner had hoped to see that trend reversed in the new farm bill by shifting funding away from subsidy checks. Supporters of the subsidy say they're necessary to ensure a stable, affordable food supply. But Sumner disagrees.
Dr. SUMNER: Going into this farm bill, a lot of people thought this is the ideal year to readdress what we're doing with agricultural policy. Let's do more investment on RND, say nutrition issues on obesity. Let's deal within basic species, and use money that we really don't need to be spending on the subsidy programs for that.
ARNOLD: So the hope was that the farm bill would be transformed from a program that rewards some individual farmers into one that helps agriculture more broadly. But Sumner says that's not what's happening. He says there will likely be a couple of billion dollars for research, pest managements, healthier school lunches to help fruit and vegetable growers. But he says a lot more money will still be spent on handouts to larger commodity farms.
Chris Arnold, NPR News, Boston.
BLOCK: The farm bill affects everything from what we eat to how we trade. You can read about why it's controversial and why you should care at npr.org.