Congress

Details of the massive new farm bill disclosed

WASHINGTON — The five-year farm bill completed Thursday is a multibillion-dollar grab bag.

If it survives a threatened presidential veto, the bill is estimated to cost $286 billion over five years and roughly $600 billion over 10 years. Over the next decade, 73 percent of the funds will go for food stamp and nutrition programs.

The bill will easily exceed 1,000 pages when it is finally published Monday prior to next week's House and Senate votes, and undoubtedly some surprises are yet to be discovered. Many of the most crucial items, though, have already been spelled out. These include:

SPECIALTY CROPS — Fruits, vegetables, nuts and wine travel under the generic name specialty crops, which together receive a record amount in the new farm bill. The bill totals roughly $1.3 billion for a variety of grants, research and marketing assistance targeting specialty crops and organic agriculture.

The specialty crop spending would be several times more than was provided in the last farm bill written in 2002. It includes, for instance, $33 million for grants promoting farmers markets, $466 million in block grants to states and $22 million to help small growers pay the fees needed for certification as an organic farm. States will basically use the block grants to promote specialty crops, with fruit-and-vegetable-producing states like California and Florida getting a big share of the total.

WEALTHY FARMERS — The Bush administration wanted to ban crop subsidy payments to farmers who make more than $200,000 a year. Rural lawmakers had other ideas and set up a complicated scheme instead.

Currently, subsidies are banned for farmers with incomes exceeding $2.5 million. The new farm bill purports to ban all government payments to growers with off-farm income exceeding $500,000. The bill also purports to ban a certain kind of subsidy, called a direct payment, to growers with farm income exceeding $750,000.

Lawmakers, though, also tinkered with definitions to expand what is meant by farm income. Married farmers, moreover, can effectively double their income limits. Potentially, it now appears, a single grower who combines an off-farm income of $499,999 with on-farm income of $749,999 could still receive payments.

CROP SUBSIDIES — Traditional subsidies will largely remain intact for commodities such as cotton, rice, wheat and corn despite record prices. Several new crops are added to the existing "counter-cyclical" subsidy program, including lentils, dry peas and chick peas.

Lawmakers added new reforms, including getting rid of the so-called "three entity rule" that has permitted farmers to multiply the number of subsidy payments they receive.

CONSERVATION — Under an expanded and newly renamed Conservation Stewardship Program, the bill would provide $12 billion over 10 years to help farmers practice soil and water conservation.

After much haggling, negotiators agreed that the conservation payments won't be subject to the same income test that will be applied for other subsidy payments. This was crucial to lawmakers in a few states such as California. The bill also includes $150 million set aside in the existing Environmental Quality Incentive Program to help farmers in polluted regions pay for improvements like new pumps and engines. This targets a few regions including California's San Joaquin Valley.

NUTRITION — The bill renames Food Stamps, rhetorically updating them to become the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. More substantively, the bill would add $10 billion in nutrition spending over the next 10 years. The bill would increase minimum food stamp benefits and make it easier to qualify, by excluding certain child care costs and other assets in determining eligibility.

An existing Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Snack Program, currently limited to 14 states, would be expanded to schools in all 50 states with the help of $1 billion. The money would enable designated schools with large low-income populations to buy healthy snacks for free distribution.

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