Tankful of corn

When large subsidies for ethanol, made from corn, were inserted into the 2002 farm bill, they were sold as a way to promote clean fuel and reduce dependence on oil. Of course, ethanol — probably sloshing around in your gas tank right now — also became a bonanza for corn farmers. Increased demand has helped fuel record prices. What’s Washington doing about it? The Senate version of the farm bill doubles funding for energy programs, including ethanol, to $1.5 billion over 10 years.

Milk shakeup

When the price of milk drops, the government steps in to pay farmers, and even buy cheese and powdered milk (276.4 million pounds of it in fiscal 2009) to drive dairy prices back up. Maybe not for long. The Senate bill replaces these price supports with insurance for milk producers that kicks in when the price falls or the cost of feed shoots up. Estimated savings: $59 million over 10 years.

The beef with beef

Meatpackers weren’t happy when the 2008 farm bill required the USDA to crack down on anticompetitive contracts — a reform intended to make it harder for buyers to favor large ranchers while freezing out smaller independents. This year beef lobbyists may prevail: The Senate bill reverses the rule.

Peanut butter vs. jelly

Peanut farmers don’t like the proposals in the farm bill — but those who grow corn, used for sweeteners in jelly, do. The bill would eliminate $5 billion in yearly payments to farmers and replace them with subsidized insurance based on revenue. Midwestern corn growers, who benefit from high prices, welcome the protection. Southern peanut farmers, concerned about low prices, complain they’ll lose out.

In 2010 the average consumed 34.8 lb. of high-fructose corn syrup — ketchup’s top sweetener — up from 0.4 lb. in 1970.

Spurned spuds

Although potatoes are ubiquitous, they come up short in the farm bill. The reason? They aren’t commodity crops — traded on exchanges — and the farm bill is all about promoting and protecting markets. Like most fruits and vegetables, potatoes are considered specialty crops, eligible for grants but not direct subsidies.

Taking the sting out of disaster

The Senate bill adds $1.9 billion in disaster assistance for farmers whose animals or crops are wiped out by natural disasters such as blizzards or wildfires. And not just cows and chickens: Beekeepers qualify for government cash if at least 17.5 percent of their insects die.

No tongue required

Paper can be recycled, but stamps couldn’t — until researchers at the USDA’s Forest Service invented recyclable, self-sticking glue.

Fresh(ish) fruit

Why eat a fresh, delicious apple when you can have one that’s pre-sliced and sealed with preservatives in plastic? In 1999 the USDA helped create NatureSeal, a powder that keeps cut fresh fruit from turning brown and mushy for as long as 21 days.

Holy cluck

In April, U.S. farms slaughtered 683 million chickens, more than any other country. That’s enough to make 83 billion chicken nuggets — 268 for every man, woman, and child in the nation.

Sip your way to a fat 401(k)

Restaurants and soft drink and snack food companies make up nearly 6 percent of the S&P 500 index. Their stocks have risen 54 percent over the past five years, in part because the farm bill helps keep down the price of raw ingredients used in junk food.

What’s worse than school lunch?

How about school lunch made with chickpeas and lentils, soon to be foisted on captive middle-schoolers, thanks to a $10 million pilot program to promote the unloved legumes.


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