Farm Bill Boosts Old Barns, Fancy Cheese

The Associated Press
Friday, November 9, 2007; 1:05 PM

WASHINGTON -- Buried in a massive farm bill moving through the Senate are calls for spending on handmade cheese, repairs to historic barns and help for stressed-out farmers _ programs that have drawn the ire of some Republicans.

The $286 billion bill has been excoriated as too expensive by conservatives, taxpayer advocates and the Bush administration, which is threatening to veto it.

Still, the five-year legislation remains politically popular in Congress, where lawmakers see ample opportunity to include policies and projects that help their states as they head toward an election year. And those who object to the bill's large tab often end up supporting it for fear of opposing programs popular with their voters.

"People are literally getting bought off for peanuts," said Scott Ellis of Taxpayers for Common Sense, which opposes the legislation and most farm subsidies.

Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, the top Republican on the Budget Committee, says it's bad fiscal policy.

"I'm not sure many Americans would agree that stress assistance programs for farmers or artisan cheese centers are a good use of their hard-earned dollars," Gregg said.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., has said he will offer amendments to strike many of the extra provisions, including those for the handmade cheese and historic barns.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., is one of two senators behind the cheese provision, which authorizes congressional spending committees to pay for the promotion of artisan, or handmade, cheese. Vermont is home to the greatest number of artisan cheesemakers per capita in the United States, according to the Vermont Institute for Artisan Cheese.

Leahy spokesman David Carle defends the idea, saying artisan cheese production is a promising new sector of the dairy industry.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., a member of the Agriculture Committee and one of the bill's authors, says the rehabilitation and repair of historic barns would help tourism in agricultural parts of New England. And the stress assistance would help farmers and ranchers deal with volatile markets, he said.

"Farmers tend to be isolated and they deal with so much stress," he said.

Despite some of the more obscure provisions, Ellis says his group is most concerned with the larger tab _ billions of dollars in annual subsidies for producers of corn, wheat, rice, cotton and other major crops.

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