Washington — The US Department of Agriculture (USDA) will be taking a sharp turn toward pleasing American farmers and boosting their profits when the Reagan team takes over this month.
Improving profits for the agriculture industry is "priority No. 1," declared John R. Block, USDA secretary-designate this week. And farmers are delighted with the prospect.
Farmers, who have felt neglected and even betrayed by former peanut farmer Jimmy Carter, are heartily welcoming Mr. Block. Marvin Meek, chairman of the American Agriculture Movement, goes so far as to say that farmers feel they have "struck gold" with Block.
Block's supporters hail him as a "real" farmer. He operates a 3,000-acre hog and grain farm and was tapped for the USDA post from his job as director of the Illinois Agriculture Department.
Farming, he told the Senate hearing, is his one interest and he promises to be a "strong voice for agriculture in the halls of government."
But he is soft-peddling some of his earlier controversial public statements. When first introduced as Reagan's choice for the post, he called food a "weapon" for foreign policy. He has since toned down his remark to call food a "tool" and, this week, an "instrument for peace."
However, he holds firm on his opposition to the grain embargo against the Soviet Union, charging that embargoes should be across-the-board so that farmers will not be the only ones carrying the burden.
Block also played down his attacks on the USDA's $10 billion-plus food stamp program, which he has charged with waste and corruption. He will now say only that the food stamp program "needs to be carefully scrutinized."
Consumer and hunger-relief groups are unhappy with the Block appointment. "I'm really concerned," Ellen Hass of the Community Nutrition Institute told the Monitor. She said Block's Senate testimony did little to reassure her.
"There really didn't seem to be an understanding of consumer needs or of the poor," she said, adding that Block's career has been "isolated" in the field of Illinois agriculture. "It's a very one-sided approach," she said.
As it is shaping up, the USDA under Block, who seems assured of confirmation before Jan. 20, will follow a course incuding:
* A strong push for exporting foods, even at the cost of boosting food prices at home.
* Ending the Russian grain embargo as soon as possible and opening trade by July 1. Block says that if the Russians want to buy more wheat, the US should have plenty to sell since the crop looks excellent for next spring. (Analysts note, however, that the Russians have been mainly buying feed grains such as corn and sorghum from the U.S. And US reserves are low, especially since last year's drought. Hence even if the embargo were lifted, the US may not have "plenty" of what the Russians really want to buy.)
* Downplaying its consumer-protection role. Decisions to ban food additives as dangerous would be made only on firm scientific data, according to the secretary-designate.
* Promoting the idea that Americans have "the best food buys" in the free world.