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Farm Bill Charts New Course For Nation's Farmers

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Farm Bill Charts New Course For Nation's Farmers

Farm Bill Charts New Course For Nation's Farmers

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And after nearly two years of debate, lawmakers have reached a bipartisan agreement on a massive new farm bill. The House is expected to vote on the legislation today. The bill proposes nearly a trillion dollars in spending over the next 10 years, and would reduce spending by about $23 billion over that same time. As Jeremy Bernfeld of member station KCUR reports, it charged significant policy changes for the nation's farmers.

JEREMY BERNFELD, BYLINE: When you think of farm subsidies, think about the allowance you got from your parents for doing chores. That's kind of what the government does, paying a flat fee, regardless of how much a farmer planted or how well the crops did. They're called direct payments, but they're largely going away.

ART BARNABY: Under the direct payment, I just got it. I got the allowance. I didn't have to do anything for it.

BERNFELD: That's Art Barnaby, an agricultural economist at Kansas State University. Instead of direct payments to farmers, Washington will now bulk up their crop insurance program. That's kind of like if your parents say they'll quit giving you allowance, but will guarantee that you'll make enough in tips at your job at the diner.

BARNABY: Under the I'll-make-up-the-difference, it's an insurance policy, and you're paying premiums for it.

BERNFELD: That's not to say the government is ripping away support from farmers. Their crop insurance program will continue to be heavily subsidized by taxpayers. Direct payments cost the government about $5 billion a year. In recent years, the average government payment for crop insurance is about $6 billion. Paying farmers just for owning farm land, that's out. Crop insurance, which was already popular among farmers, is in. But how much farmers get depends largely on the weather. Payments are high in times of drought or unseasonable cold.

BARNABY: If we have good weather over the next five years, the government will spend less on farm programs than they have historically.

BERNFELD: But if we don't, the bill will likely run considerably higher. Farmers, on the whole, like their crop insurance and they also like the farm bill. But some in the meat industry, not so much. Meat industry groups wanted Congress to strip out rules for Country of Origin Labeling, known as COOL. Under the rules which stay, meatpackers have to label where animals were born, raised and slaughtered.

SCOTT GEORGE: They basically slapped the face of the livestock industries in this country.

BERNFELD: Scott George is a rancher in Cody, Wyoming and president of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association. It opposes this farm bill, in part because of the COOL rules. They say it's a bookkeeping nightmare, and having to separate animals based on where they were born is next to impossible.

GEORGE: The implementation of these new standards is going to cost the industry in excess of $100 million. Those $100 million are going to come right out of the hands, or out of the pockets of the producers sitting right here on the farms and ranches.

CHAD HART: They feel very strongly that this is having a negative impact on their industry, and therefore, yeah, they're going to speak out about that.

BERNFELD: That's Chad Hart, a longtime farm bill watcher at Iowa State University. There's lots of money in the farm bill, and because so much of the spending depends on enrollment in programs like food stamps and even in the weather, it's hard to know whether the farm bill will save taxpayers money or not.

HART: From a taxpayer perspective, the key is: What does it average out to be over time?

BERNFELD: And from a farmer's perspective, the vagaries of weather, pests, crop prices and market forces are all elements they balance every day. So, a farm bill that embraces that is one that most farmers can live with. For NPR News, I'm Jeremy Bernfeld.

MONTAGNE: And that story comes to us from Harvest Public Media, a reporting project focusing on agriculture and food production issues.

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