Southern Farmers Sour To Senate Farm Bill

Jun 13, 2012
Originally published on June 13, 2012 6:29 am


JOSEPHINE BENNETT, BYLINE: I'm Josephine Bennett in Macon, Georgia, and this is peanut country.


BENNETT: Georgia produces almost half of the nation's peanut crop, so a little rain like this is a big deal to people like Rodney Dawson, who farms thousands of acres in Hawkinsville.

RODNEY DAWSON: In this county alone, we've been hit five years in a row with drought. So yes, this is music to our ears.

BENNETT: The rain may be music to his ears, but the Senate version of the farm bill strikes a sour note. He's not happy about the proposed insurance program that would replace the direct payment system. He says it wouldn't even cover the cost of seed, fuel and fertilizer.

DAWSON: We need a safety net. We need some way that can be passed on so the farmers can survive, because if you had to sell on that price at harvest time and it's way down below the cost of production, it's hard to stay in business.

BENNETT: Most of the crops covered in the insurance program, like corn and soybeans, are publically traded, so their prices are easy to establish. But peanuts are sold directly to a small number of shellers, making them subject to extreme price swings. The Georgia Farm Bureau is paying close attention to the bill. Legislative director Jon Huffmaster says if it's one thing farmers need, it's economic certainty.

JON HUFFMASTER: You're not necessarily in control of what's going to be the outcome. You can do everything right and then not have the right kind of weather or have the wrong kind of weather, a bad time or whatever, and it totally undermines all your efforts for the whole year.

BENNETT: Almost three-quarters of Georgia's peanut crop is used to do one thing: make peanut butter. Last year, prices jumped 30 percent when peanut supplies tightened. Huffmaster says it could happen again if farming peanuts becomes too risky. Georgia Republican congressman Austin Scott is the grandson of two peanut farmers, and serves on the House Agriculture Committee. He says they've got a lot of members from the South, and that could be a game-changer when the House takes up the bill again this summer.

REPRESENTATIVE AUSTIN SCOTT: If it doesn't work for the peanut farmers, then I can't support it. I want to make sure that what we do with regard to crop insurance helps to carry our farmers through the bad years.

BENNETT: And that's the problem, says U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. He says it's difficult to craft a bill that satisfies all farmers and reflects regional differences.

SECRETARY TOM VILSACK: This is going to get worked it. It's not so much a bias. It's that there needs to be some tweaking, potentially, to some of the programs so that peanut farmers, for example, perceive that they're getting enough adequate protection.

BENNETT: For peanut farmer Rodney Dawson, this Capitol Hill debate is personal. For 43 years, he has harvested peanuts, and now he's worried. His son is debating whether he wants to be the fifth generation of the Dawson family to work the land.

DAWSON: He doesn't know if he wants to tackle being a farmer, you know. It's a lot of risk, but the uncertainties are there in the market, because there's nothing set in concrete that - what price you're going to get. So it's a lot of gamble, a lot of times.

BENNETT: It's been a good year for peanut farmers so far, but Dawson says with an abundance of the crop, prices could drop in half by this fall's harvest. For NPR News, I'm Josephine Bennett in Macon, Georgia. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.