Despite some objections from subsidy-reform groups and even senior senators, the Senate Agriculture Committee unanimously approved a farm bill draft that essentially keeps subsidies status quo.

The five-year bill mirrors one passed this summer by the House and would provide more than $280 billion for agriculture and nutrition programs.It also includes about $1.7 billion that would help specialty crops with programs, such as enhanced research, conservation and marketing.

The House version leaves in place most crop subsidies, referred to in the bill as crop deficiency payments, for field crops such as cotton, rice, corn, soybeans and wheat.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., had proposed to reduce direct payments by $1.7 billion because the subsidies are not based on current crop production. Instead, Lugar says he would direct the money to nutrition programs. Although committee members praised his efforts, they voted 17-4 to defeat the measure.

Lugar and Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., have proposed eliminating direct payments altogether and replacing them with crop insurance for all farmers.

The Senate version does include modifications to the planting flexibility restrictions. 

Those modifications would allow a producer who participates in the average crop revenue program to grow fruits and vegetables with the following restrictions:

♦ Limited to seven Midwestern states,

♦ No more than 10,000 acres for each state,

♦ Limited to processing fruits or vegetables only,

♦ Verification of a processing contract is required,

♦ Program begins in 2010 and

♦ Penalties for any violation are the same as current law. 

In addition, there will be a 10,000-acre pilot for processing tomatoes for 2008 and 2009 for Indiana only.  The Specialty Crop Farm Bill Alliance, which represents more than 100 fruit and vegetable grower groups, accepted the changes in flexibility rather than face a vote on an amendment to eliminate the entire planting flexibility restrictions. 

The full Senate now will debate the farm bill, which could come as early as next week.

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