The program illustrates a conundrum in the increasingly shrill political debate over how, or whether, government should offer aid to mold the economy.
Few areas of the country are struggling more than rural America, where poverty is growing, small businesses are closing and the children of many farmers are moving away rather than follow in their parents' footsteps. Resurgent oil- and gas-drilling is providing some income, but even conservative states, such as Kansas, are coming up with new tax breaks and incentives to bolster the rural economy.
In Washington, though, the climate is hostile for any program without stout political backing and with opposition from other interests.
The House version of the farm bill limits the program's funding to $45 million a year and designates it as "discretionary," meaning the program might or might not get it. The Senate version would provide $68 million annually in mandatory funds with a possible $20 million a year in discretionary money. The farm bill, which expired at the end of September, remains under discussion in Congress.
In the House, "everything took a cut; that's the nature of the environment in which we work today," said Tamara Hinton, a spokeswoman for House Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas, a Republican from Oklahoma. Lucas' support for farm programs has made him a target for the conservative Club for Growth, which is seeking a primary opponent to run against him.
If renewable and efficient energy is so economical, farmers should invest on their own "and don't need a push from Washington," said Dan Holler, spokesman for Heritage Action for America, the lobbying arm of the conservative Heritage Foundation.
Dale Moore, director of public policy at the American Farm Bureau Federation, said getting private loans can be difficult for farmers whose cash flow is uncertain. The USDA "understands the ag and rural community," he said, and offers partial loan guarantees and grants.