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Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Harvest covers these agriculture-related topics through an expanding network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.Most Harvest Public Media stories begin with radio- regular reports are aired on member stations in the Midwest. But Harvest also explores issues through online analyses, television documentaries and features, podcasts, photography, video, blogs and social networking. They are committed to the highest journalistic standards. Click here to read their ethics standards.Harvest Public Media was launched in 2010 with the support of a grant from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Today, the collaboration is supported by CPB, the partner stations, and contributions from underwriters and individuals.Tri States Public Radio is an associate partner of Harvest Public Media. You can play an important role in helping Harvest Public Media and Tri States Public Radio improve our coverage of food, field and fuel issues by joining the Harvest Network. Learn more here.

No Taxpayer Savings in First Year of Farm Bill Commodity Payouts

file: Amy Mayer/Harvest Public Media
Corn and soybean farmers have received farm bill payments for the 2014 crop year.

Many corn and soybean farmers in the Midwest are receiving their first government payments under the new Farm Bill enacted last year, and taxpayers are spending more than projected.

Under the old system of direct payments, farmers knew what they’d get each year and the government knew the price tag would hover around $5 billion annually. But with the new Farm Bill, farmers choose a safety-net program, either one that is triggered when average annual yield falls below a certain point or when the average annual price does. Most Corn Belt farmers chose the county-level Agricultural Risk Coverage (ARC), which calculates payments based on the average yield in the county.

The government’s idea was to save money by replacing fixed costs with variable expenses that would, at least in some years, be lower than the old amounts. It didn’t work out that way for the 2014 crop year, the season for which payments are now being distributed. (For corn and soybeans, the crop year runs September 1 through August 31.)

“It’s going to be over $6 billion,” said University of Illinois economist Gary Schnitkey. That’s more than a billion over the annual direct payment amount.

But Schnitkey remains optimistic.

"As we move through time, those payments likely will come down in future years,” he said.

Despite the high price tag for taxpayers, payments to farmers vary widely. Heavy spring rains can hinder planting. Lack of rain can kill crops. Either can reduce yield.

“In Iowa, many of the counties were receiving the maximum ARC county payment,” Schnitkey said, “and in central Illinois we see zero.”

Over the five year lifespan of the farm bill, Schnitkey said it’s still possible the billions of dollars in projected savings could be achieved. But that will depend on unpredictable factors, like the weather. 

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.