Farmers Rely on Government Handout

North Dakota's farming season is notoriously unreliable, with this year's May snowstorms pushing back planting in most of the state.

Luckily, farmers who know they can't count on the weather are sure they can count on the federal government.

"I'd be losing money every year without the government," said Terry Naas, a local farmer.

On Wednesday, the Senate approved 64-35 a 10-year farm bill that ups subsidies by 80 percent, returning them to pre-1996 levels, when the Freedom to Farm Act was passed by Congress in an effort to reduce subsidies on a variety of crops over the next six years.

The flow of federal dollars was supposed to end this year, but the effort to wean farmers off subsidies has instead given way to $83 billion more over the next 10 years, most of it dispersed as payouts to farmers.

The House passed an identical version of the bill last week on a 280-141 vote.  It now goes to the president's desk for his signature.

Three years ago, Fox News visited Naas when he was on the verge of leaving his family farm. He said had it not been for $300,000 he received from the federal government since then, he would have quit the business.

It's the same story for most North Dakota farmers. Government payments to grow crops — or not grow them — is the only thing that keeps farmers on the farm.

"How do I say it?" asked Eric Aasmundstad of the North Dakota Farm Bureau. "It's absolutely as critical as blood running through your veins."

The new farm bill has been described as "a little something for everyone." Almost the entire array of American agricultural products are now covered with some form of subsidy, and political analysts say that could be because of the tight election year in 2002.

"Both the Democrats and the Republicans are vying for votes, and one of the ways to vie for votes is to bring more money back home," said Andrew Swenson at North Dakota State University's extension service.

Swenson said that politically-motivated growth in federal subsidies will not be all bad. For one thing, food prices will stay low for consumers.

But already the new crop of subsidies has farmers doing their arithmetic.

"They lowered the loan rate on the soybeans and that was what I was going to plant the most of this year," Naas said.

Naas will then benefit from the late snow covering his farm. It bought him the time needed for Congress to pass the bill so he can calculate which crops will yield him the most government money come harvest time.