The nation’s farm bill, which comes up every five years, currently puts billions of dollars into farmers' pockets even if they don’t plant crops. Those direct payments are one of several ways the federal government protects farmers from falling prices and natural disasters. But that could be changing.

Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., has publicly stated that she considers this year’s bill "the most significant reform of agriculture policy in decades." She has declared that direct payments are over.

Stabenow says that the bill will only pay farmers for what they grow and will not pay them when they are doing well.

The farm bill, which aims to replace direct subsidies with subsidized insurance programs that would protect farmers during bad weather and price slumps, will likely be changed both on the Senate floor and by the House Ag Committee. The Obama administration, which also wants to end the direct subsidies, says more than 50 percent of the subsidies now go to farmers making more than $100,000 a year. The Associated Press reported this week that the Congressional Research Service estimates that under current law, the government will spend $5.7 billion a year on commodity programs, including direct payments, along with $1.5 billion a year on disaster aid and $9 billion a year to subsidize crop insurance. The current farm bill expires at the end of September.

The Los Angeles Times reported Tuesday that a group of food activists and celebrity chefs has called on Congress to cut the subsidies and reinvest the money in conservation and healthy food programs. In a letter to Congress, the group says it's not happy with the legislation in its current form:

The bill before the Senate would take “positive steps” toward meeting those goals, but it “falls far short of the reforms needed to come to grips with the nation’s critical food and farming challenges,” the group wrote.

The letter was coordinated by the Environmental Working Group, a Washington-based nonprofit research organization, and was signed by celebrity chefs Mario Batali and Tom Colicchio; food writer Michael Pollan; and Alice Waters, the grandmother of the local food movement, among others.

Citing a July 2011 poll in which 78% of respondents said making nutritious and healthy foods more affordable and accessible should be a top priority in the farm bill, the group said the bill before the Senate would reward wealthy farmers and insurance companies with an “extravagant entitlement program” while neglecting hungry families and farmers who grow healthier products.

Read the LA Times story here.

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