Chicago — Groups representing 2.3 million farms in the United States plan to speak out with a voice loud enough to match their growing economic clout. The aim is to tell the 95 percent of Americans who don't consider US agriculture a central part of their lives that:
* Farmers need and deserve a better return on their investment, risk, and plain hard work.
* Consumers actually could benefit from higher supermarket food prices if it kept some farmers from going out of business.
In part, nonfarmers are becoming more aware of farm problems as a result of the continued heat wave gripping the farm states from Texas to the Canadian border. Each day brings fresh reports of farmers suffering as livestock and crop losses mount.
Remarkably, even with cattle, hog, and poultry losses in the millions, supermarket meat prices are expected to rise only from 5 to 10 cents a pound. Agricultural economists explain that farmers will bear much of the cost of poor harvests and livestock losses themselves, passing only a portion of the cost along to consumers.
Winston Wilson, deputy undersecretary for international affairs and commodity programs in the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), explains that such a situation presents serious problems because it undermines an industry vital to the economy as a whole. He believes that instead of fighting for low prices, consumers should "recognize that the consumers' interest is directly linked to the farmer."
Contrary to what many consumers believe, he argues, "low farm prices are not beneficial to the consumer. When farm incomes are down, it affects the entire economy; so it is not in the consumers' interest to have rock-bottom prices."
The latest USDa figures on US farm exports stress the importance of agriculture to the economy as a whole. Farm exports for 1979 reached $34.7 billion, making the agricultural industry the country's prime exporter. These exports also generated total business activity worth $71.1 billion and provided an estimated 1.1 million full-time civilian jobs, according to the USDA.
The Agricultural Council of America (ACA), a seven-year-old organization of farmers and related businessmen, is heading a nationwide drive backed by a variety of farm groups. The message is that when farmers suffer, the economy as a whole suffers.
The ACA is taking its multimedia information show to Birmingham, Ala.; Alexandria, Va.; Las Vegas, Nev.; Nampa and Sun Valley, Idaho; Pittsburgh; Memphis; and Moultrie, Ga., over the next three months.
ACA spokesmen point out that "our nation's No. 1 industry benefits every American in many tangible ways. It provides jobs for nearly 1 out of every 5 people employed in the private sector. It fights inflation with a rate of productivity double that of nonfarm industry. It strengthens the dollar as the leading positive factor in our balance of trade."
The USDA backs up that last claim by estimating that agriculture's net export earnings for 1979 reached $39 billion.
As they tour the country, ACA members take with them a huge "food globe." This display compares US agriculture with agriculture in other countries -- to show, for instance, that "the typical Russian works 60 minutes to earn a pound of beef compared to just 16 minutes for an American." The US is "the world's food superpower," producing more food at lower prices than any of its competitors, according to ACA spokesman Mary Wood Bobbitt.
The ACA calls on consumers to "recognize that farm prices must rise in order for farmers to receive a fair return on their investment."
There's room for food price rises, says the ACA, because "over the last year, for example, food was the least inflationary major category in the consumer price index -- less than one-half the general rate of inflation. And compare the 5.9 percent increases for food to what happened to other necessities: medical care up 11.4 percent; home financing, taxes, and insurance up 33.7 percent; and energy up 43.4 percent."