WASHINGTON — Sen. John McCain was so steamed this week at part of the pending farm bill that he seemed ready to pop.
The object of his wrath: revived taxpayer-funded support for popcorn.
“The cooking oil that movie theaters use to heat popcorn is already subsidized, as well as the butter they put on top,” the Arizona Republican said in a speech on the Senate floor.
Popcorn growers and Midlands lawmakers, meanwhile, said McCain was off-target in going after a heartland staple as American as baseball and apple pie.
McCain's salty snack attack fit his broader critique of farm bill policies that benefit niche industries, from mohair to catfish.
But popcorn, in particular, drew his ire. The farm bill would move toward allowing popcorn growers into a new program that offers farmers additional protections against revenue losses.
Taxpayers' estimated price tag for popcorn's inclusion: $91 million over 10 years. All that, McCain says, for an industry doing fine on its own.
“The price of popcorn has risen 40 percent in recent years, thanks in part to ethanol, and recent free trade agreements with Colombia and South Korea are creating a boom for American popcorn exports,” McCain said next to a pasteboard showing tubs of popcorn. “There isn't a kernel of evidence that they need this support from taxpayers.”
Those were fighting words for Nebraska's senators, Republican Mike Johanns and Democrat Ben Nelson. The two had worked with fellow members of the Senate Agriculture Committee to include the popcorn language in the farm bill, and both said it's only fair that popcorn growers get the same access to government programs as those growing other crops.
“There isn't any justification for treating popcorn differently,” Nelson said.
Indeed, the average city-slicker rolling down Interstate 80 wouldn't be able to spot the difference between popcorn and other corn varieties used to feed livestock or ethanol plants.
Popcorn's hull is the perfect thickness to allow it to burst open with delicious results, according to the Popcorn Board, a Chicago-based group that promotes the product.
Popcorn represents only a tiny fraction of the total U.S. corn crop — 191,000 acres were planted in 2011 compared with more than 92 million corn acres planted overall. Nebraska edged out Indiana for the most popcorn acres planted in 2011, with 62,000, according to Popcorn Board figures. Iowa farmers planted more than 10,000 acres.
Brandon Hunnicutt of Giltner, Neb., grows corn, soybeans and popcorn and cited some unique challenges to growing popcorn.
Among them: Growers don't have the kinds of genetically modified, bug-resistant varieties available when planting regular field corn.
“Popcorn and field corn should be treated similar — they should (receive) the same insurance benefits,” he said. “Just because an industry is ‘doing fine' right now, all it takes is one shift in the market for whatever reason and the industry will not do fine.”
He said he's tired of political grandstanding about an important national and global crop.
A provision in a 2003 spending bill allowed popcorn growers to get the same direct payment subsidies other corn growers receive. The pending farm bill eliminates all such direct payments and instead creates a new “shallow loss” program known as Agriculture Risk Coverage. The new program would kick in when a farmer's revenue falls.
Popcorn was not initially included in the new program, a situation the bill's new language was designed to correct. Johanns said this week that only an oversight had left popcorn out.
“I think it was truly inadvertent, because this has been the law for 10 years,” Johanns said.
The concern for the popcorn industry, in 2003 and today, is that growers who lack access to the same government programs will just switch to other varieties of corn and crops altogether.
It's important that all growers be treated the same, said Johanns, who served as secretary of agriculture under President George W. Bush.
“Otherwise you're going to have planting decisions based upon federal programs, which is something I feel very, very strongly that we need to get away from,” Johanns said. “We have done too much of that in farm policy historically.”
The Senate continues debating the farm bill next week, and McCain is sure to keep up his criticism of the legislation, which is projected to cost about $500 billion over 5 years. About 80 percent of that total goes to nutrition programs, primarily food stamps.
McCain described the bill's cost as a “colossal sum of taxpayer dollars” when the government is drowning in red ink.
Johanns, Nelson and other farm bill backers say the new legislation represents real reform. They stress that it eliminates subsidies such as direct payments and reduces the deficit by an estimated $23 billion.
McCain acknowledged as much in his floor speech. He described its deficit reduction as a “notable accomplishment.”
“Unfortunately, it seems that Congress' idea of farm bill reform is to eliminate one subsidy program only to invent a new one to take its place,” McCain said.
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