Reagan farm policy will continue bipartisan effort to 'turn farmers loose'
Chicago — Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan had their points of disagreement on agricultural policy during the recent campaign -- notably over the embargo of grain shipments to the Soviet Union. But the first Reagan farm hill submitted to Congress, say members of the President-elect's transition team, will continue a longstanding bipartisan tradition.
Mr. Reagan is committed to expansion of farm exports and to cancellation of the grain embargo against the Soviet Union. Some knowledgeable observers suspect, however, that the new President might reassess that position after considering the possible impact on domestic food prices.
Richard Lyng, a former assistant secretary in the US Department of Agriculture who was director of the California agriculture department in Governor Reagan's administration, is a possible choice for the next US secretary of agriculture. He says he expects no significant break with present farm policy under Reagan. Both Carter and Reagan, Mr Lyng says, oppose high support prices and heavy government involvement in agriculture.
Lyng says he feels the Reagan administration will continue the broad Carter policies just as President Carter, in his first farm bill in 1977, continued past policies of "giving the farmer greater opportunity in deciding what to plant, how much to plant, and when to plant it."
President-elect Reagan's agricultural task force, headed by Clayton Yeutter, president of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, plans to deliver its list of options to the President-Elect on Dec. 1. From that list will grow the 1981 farm bill, one of the first pieces of legislation the new administration will present to Congress.
Task force members expect the new bill to be based on a bipartisan consensus.
Gene Moos, senior staff analyst for the House Agriculture Committee, says he expects the Reagan bill will include "tinkering and fine-tuning in the commodity programs," but that it will reflect a commitment shared by Republicans and Democrats to "all-out production -- turning the farmer loose."
Agricultural economist Don Paarlberg, chief USDA economist under Presidents Nixon and Ford and an adviser to the Reagan transition team, says there has been steady bipartisan progress since the Eisenhower years (1953-60) toward a free-market system for agriculture.
So why did the "farm vote" go to Reagan Nov. 4? "At least two-thirds of farm people who voted chose Reagan," says task force member Lyng, "because of the general inflationary problems" and "because of the farmers' and feeling that the Department of Agriculture had turned its back on them."
Paarlberg, Lyng, and other Reagan advisers agree that the shifts under Reagan will not be in policy -- but in leadership. they argue that Carter's original draft for the 1977 farm bill suffered when he backed down under congressional pressure for more spending. In 1981, they feel, the new President won't bow to pressure -- which in any case will be reduced with the Senate in Republican hands and the balance in the House altered by Republican gains.
Paarlberg predicts that Reagan will hold the line against any increases in price supports, and that farmers will accept this because "they will find that the regulatory programs are operated more in their interest and with more respect for their own decision making."
William Mullins, president of the National Corn Growers Association, accepts this tradeoff. "I don't think we can say we want less government and then go out and campaign for more government funds," he explains. "I think we will have to take cuts along with the rest of the people."
One test of Mr. Reagan's ability to hold onto his farm-sector support will be the touchy embargo issue.
Four years ago Mr. Carter won large numbers of farm votes by attacking the embargoes on food exports imposed by Ford and Nixon. Carter promised he would not resort to embargoes, and in a 1977 poll won an 85 percent favorable rating among Iowa farmers.
But his embargo on grain exports to the Soviets outraged many farmers, even though it was in response to Soviet aggression in Afghanistan, not as a price-control measure.
Kansas State University agricultural economist Roy Frederick feels that Reagan soon could be forced into embargoing overseas sales of farm products in order to protect domestic consumers against rising food prices. Mr. Frederick sees possible grain shortages developing and says, "I don't believe any administration will allow prices to go to the moon and stand by to see tremendous pressure put on consumers."
Mr. Moos feels Reagan may find himself unable to carry out his promise to scrap the Carter embargo. "Lifting the embargo would add further fuel to the food inflation," he says. And he adds that embargo pressure comes not just from supermarket shoppers, but from livestock feeders who already are calling for export controls because shortages have escalated their feed costs sharply.
The reagan team's answer once again is leadership. In the face of consumer pressures, says Professor Paarlberg, "you just stiffen your spine." Mr. Lyng cites the example ofthe Australian government refusing to bend to consumer pressure for an embargo when heavy export volume forced up domestic meat prices.
"Making farming profitable is vital to the farmer and to the consumer as well ," Lyng insists, adding that profitability rests on steadily increasing US export volumes. Embargoes or other measures to hold down food prices at home, he says, offer short-term benefits at the expense of overall agricultural development.
So a central part of the Reagan farm policy will be to get the message across to consumers and labor leaders that higher prices for farm products and unrestricted exports are important not just to the farmer. "The United States of America as a whole benefits," says task force member Seeley Lodwick, "in terms of our improved balance of payments and more jobs."