Court: patenting 'life' and watering those big farms

The Supreme Court has settled one issue in the long-simmering dispute over limiting federal irrigation subsidies in the West to smaller farms. The ruling that farmers in California's Imperial Valley are entitled to taxpayr-subsidized irrigation water regardless of the size of their farm, however, was a narrow one. It leaves unanswered the larger question of what acreage restrictions, if any, should apply to irrigators elsewhere in the 17 Western states where much of America's vegetables, fruit, and other food products are grown.

The issue is one that has long divided big and small farmers in the West. And it has implications for all Americans because it involves millions of dollars in federal subsidies. In many instances, the subsidies go to support large corporate-owned agribusinesses at a time when national economic problems call for fiscal restraint in Washington -- and at a time when small family-owned farms are disappearing at a rate of some 30,000 a year. Since 1945, more than four million US farms have vanished.

Yet, the efficiency and productivity of large farms that have helped make America the food basket for many of the world's hungry must also be recognized. The challenge that Congress must face up to now, as it seeks to update a largely ignored 1902 federal law that limited irrigation rights to farms no bigger than 160 acres, is to find a formula that cubrs subsidies to the biggest producers without undermining the country's ability to feed itself.

Even if the Supreme Court had ruled otherwise this week, legislation currently before Congress would have exempted the Imperial Valley, because of past peculiarities htat allowed the area to receive Colorado River water without restrictions. For farms elsewhere, the Carter administration supports a reasonable 960-acre limitation on the size of farm eligible for subsidized irrigation water. Interior Secretary Andrus points out that this would include 97 percent of the farms currently receiving federally subsidized water. The other 3 percent, however, are so large that they control 30 percent of the irrigated land, adn a 960-acre limitation would encourage those few corporations with the biggest landholdings to sell sections of their land to would-be small farmers.

Unfortunately, the White House, bowing to apprent political pressure, has recently sought to soft-pedal its opposition to other congressional proposals that would allow the largest farms to retain htie grip on the region's water rights. In one recent letter to Congress Secretary Andrus's vow that President Carter would veto such a measure was reportedly deleted by White House staffers concerned that Mr. Carter might lose the political support of large farmers. The President will hardly gain tehe respect of nonfarmers by putting politics first. He would do better to consider the long-range implications of the issue and stick by his pledge to veto any measure that fails to provide greater protection for America's beleaguered small farmers.

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