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Farmers want more money for crop support programs included in Farm Bill

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Political drama in Washington is delaying passage of a new farm bill which provides hundreds of billions of dollars for food and agricultural programs. Harvest Public Media's Elizabeth Rembert reports.

ELIZABETH REMBERT, BYLINE: During World War I, farmers grew huge amounts of wheat, answering the call from the government to feed hungry troops and allies. When the war ended in 1918, demand went with it. Prices collapsed, and farmers burned their grains as fuel instead of selling it for a low price. Many farmers went bankrupt even before endless dust storms started stirring up soil in parts of the Great Plains.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: The Dust Bowl, millions of tons of sand and grit darkened the sky and smothered countless farms.

JONATHAN COPPESS: You had this catastrophe on top of the economic catastrophe, which was driving farmers into bankruptcy and out of business.

REMBERT: Jonathan Coppess is an ag policy expert at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, and says one way the government stepped in was to pay farmers to plant fewer crops, sort of like a business' supply and demand model.

COPPESS: If Ford Motor Company has too many cars on the market and is depressing prices, what do they do? Well, they lay off workers and they close plants and try to bring the supply back down.

REMBERT: Ninety years later, the government still wants to help farmers through tough years. But now, instead of controlling supply, the government just pays farmers when crop prices dip below a certain level or revenue goes under a set amount. But it's been a while since prices went low enough for Chris Tanner, a farmer in Northwest Kansas, to get one of those checks.

CHRIS TANNER: I haven't received payment and probably the last four to five years. The reason being is the reference price is far too low.

REMBERT: Reference prices are what trigger payments under Title I, the farm bill program that sends those checks. They're only set during farm bill negotiations every five years, and they're pretty low compared to today's high crop prices and costly farming expenses. Most farmers would go bankrupt before Title I support kicks in, according to Anastasia Meyer, a farm economist with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

ANASTASIA MEYER: This is not going to save any farmers if prices really go downhill fast.

REMBERT: From his farm in Kansas, Tanner puts it more strongly.

TANNER: Title I does not work. If we don't get the reference price raised, it's not a safety net, it's a safety asphalt.

BRUCE BABCOCK: They've been saying that for 40 years.

REMBERT: Bruce Babcock is skeptical of raising reference prices after years studying ag policy at Iowa State University. He says it's a waste, especially amid high commodity prices that have boosted farm incomes.

BABCOCK: Look at the price of corn. Look at the price of soybeans. Look at the price of wheat.

REMBERT: Babcock says the Title I money is no strings attached and doesn't even make a big difference in farmers bottom lines. He wishes it was tied to environmental practices - preventing pollution, investing in butterfly habitats.

BABCOCK: You know, anything. But we're not getting anything for the billions that we spend on farm programs. Why not buy something for that money?

REMBERT: But Coppess, the U of I economist, says there's an argument that Title I protects the food supply in tough years by keeping some farms above the water line.

COPPESS: It's relatively cheap social insurance, kind of ensuring that we're keeping some farms in operation, and we shouldn't have a problem.

REMBERT: Relatively cheap social insurance that still costs billions annually at a time when some lawmakers demand spending cuts.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Rembert.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARC DE SOLEIL'S "MUMBO SUGAR") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Rembert