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Can California stomach the Farm Bill?

Some farmers think the Senate's proposed farm bill favors farmers in the Midwest and leaves California farmers without a safety net.
Some farmers think the Senate's proposed farm bill favors farmers in the Midwest and leaves California farmers without a safety net.
Kathy Lohr/NPR

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Lawmakers in Washington are debating the billion-dollar behemoth that is the Farm Bill.

It's the closest thing this country has to a national food policy because it decides who, what, when and where gets money for agriculture. Critics are calling for major reforms. They argue too much money is spent subsidizing wheat, corn, rice and other grain growers, while fruit, nut and vegetable farmers are given short shrift.

Kari Hamerschlag, senior food and agriculture analyst based in the California office of the Environmental Working Group (EWG), said the proposed system isn't fair, with 4 percent of farmers getting 30 percent of crop insurance premium subsidies. She added that with farm income at an all time high (rising from $58 billion to $100 billion) and the economy still suffering, the country should rethink its investments.

"What we're saying at EWG is we can cut. We can trim some of the fat from the crop insurance companies and from the largest most profitable farms and we can redirect that money to better purposes, because California has some tremendous needs in our agricultural production system that are not being met," she said.

Anthony Bush, chair of the National Corn Growers Association’s public policy action team, said that getting larger farms to take part in the crop insurance is integral for keeping insurance prices and food prices low for others.

"Risk is risk, no matter how big or small you are. The price per acre paid for crop insurance is the same, no matter what size you are," he said. "To take those larger producers out of the program would be like taking all those good drivers off the road, and your pool of acres needs to be larger, or those higher level producers won't participate. We would not want to do anything that discourages participation and risk management."

Bush, who runs a family farm in Mount Gilead, Ohio, adds that even larger farms rely on crop insurance.

"Our risk today in farming is far greater than just my 67 year-old father ever imagined. It costs more to put an acre of corn out today than what we used to gross off of an acre just a few acres ago," he explained.

According to Hamerschlag, critics merely want to reform the crop insurance system.

"We're not at all suggesting we should eliminate crop insurance. ... We absolutely believe in a safety net for farmers. It's just that the crop insurance program has grown from $2 billion a year to $9 billion a year. This farm bill [is] inflated to invest 90 billion for the next 10 years in crop insurance. What we're suggesting is we need some payment limits on crop insurance," she continued.

Much of the billions of dollars spent on Midwest commodity crops pay for crop insurance for farmers – large and small. It's a safety net if crops fail or prices fall. In California, fruit and vegetable growers want funds to better market their product.

"Foodie" activists such as Alice Waters and Michael Pollan are getting in on the debate, too. They say America's obesity problem stems from a Farm Bill that doesn't invest in healthy food.

Hamerschlag says that the U.S. spends eight times more on commodity crops (the wheat, corn, rice and grain) than on specialty crops (fruits, nuts and vegetables) when market value of those commodity crops is only twice that of specialty crops. Though the acreage is much higher, she said that isn't the point. She joins activists with a health stance, saying investing more in specialty crops will alleviate the amount of money taxpayers have to fork over each year.

"The point is what kinds of food should we be supporting more of in our country today. Only 5 percent of Americans are getting the recommended amount of fruits and vegetables. Vegetable consumption has actually declined by nine pounds per person, we're facing a major obesity epidemic in this country, and the diet-related medical costs of the major illnesses, like diabetes, cancer, heart disease and stroke are costing our nation [...] $70 billion a year. If we invested more in the healthy foods that really go directly to these illnesses, we would save the American taxpayer a lot of money," she said.

Bush says that the bill's priority to keep food in peoples' mouths overrides health concerns.

"It's important to every American that insures a safe and affordable food supply in America. Our disposable income spent on food is by far lower than any country in the world. A lot of people are diabetic because of food choices. We as consumers choose to eat things that aren't good for us, and to blame that on subsidies I don't think is really fair," he explained.

Why does the federal government allocate the biggest chunk of funding to grain farmers? How would California farmers use federal funds? Would that change nutrition for the nation?


Kari Hamerschlag, Senior Food and Agriculture Analyst based in the California office of the Environmental Working Group

Anthony Bush, runs a family farm in Mount Gilead, Ohio; Chair of the National Corn Growers Association’s public policy action team.