Chicago — All indications point to another disappointing grain harvest in the USSR next year, US Department of Agriculture experts say. This knowledge seems to have dimnished the likelihood that Ronald Reagan will soon end the grain embargo imposed against the Soviets by Jimmy Carter a year ago.
Another poor harvest would mean that, for seven of the last 10 years, the Russians have fallen well below their 200 million-ton yearly wheat target. And it would make the Soviet Union more vulnerable than ever to continued restrictions on purchases of US grain.
Even American farmers bitterly opposed to embargoes in general -- and to this embargo in particular -- accept that Mr. Reagan, after he becomes President Jan. 20, may need to continue the present embargo for foreign policy reasons.
Latest US Department of Agriculture (USDA) reports conclude that President Carter's grain embargo caused a 6 million-ton reduction of grain availability during the Soviets' "tight" period of the first six months of last year. The embargo, according to a USDA international trade analyst, "denied the Soviets about 10 percent of their feed-grain requirements." It was effective, he added, because "the main purpose was to impact on the Soviets' vulnerable livestock sector."
With unfavorable weather conditions foreseen in the USSR, and because the Soviet winter wheat planting was more than 7 million acres short of target, the USDA expects the embargo to have an even greater impact over the coming six months.
"The pressures on the Soviets are building," reports this trade analyst, "so that the Soviets will have to continue to rely on the world market for grain, continue to pay premium prices, continue to use smaller vessels, which cause congestion in their ports -- with impacts on their whole economic system, as seen in the latest signs of meat shortages. . . ."
Many US farmers, pointing out that the embargo brought about no change in Soviet policy toward Afghanistan, insist that the embargo has hurt them by lowering producer prices an undermining overseas confidence in the United States as a reliable supplier.
But most also accept that, with the Soviets now poised for military intervention in Poland, this is not the time to end the embargo.
William Mullins, president of the National Corn Growers Association, explains that the Polish situation must be studied closely by the incoming administration before it makes any move on the embargo.
"Of course I would like to see the embarbo lifted today," says Mr. Mullins. "But now it's a matter affecting overall Soviet-American relations, and I simply don't know if the Russian troops are sitting in Poland waiting to pull the trigger."
One key congressional expert rules out the likelihood of any Reagan move on the embargo before April. In his view: "With the Polish situation adding to the Afghanistan problem, it would take an unusual calming of events prompt any lifting of the embargo in the near term. I cannot see te US acting unilaterally in this area while the Soviets are holding a club over Poland."
Even in voicing his own opposition to the embargo at his Jan. 6 Senate Confirmation hearings, Agriculture Secretary-designate John Block added that ending it immediately would have little positive effect for American farmers.
Mr. Block and others say that, without the embargo, the Soviets might be authorized to make small soybean purchases now and some wheat purchases in July -- but that there probably would be no corn purchases until much later in the year. (Even this hint of new grain sales to the Soviets, however, sent wheat prices climbing at the Chicago Board of Trade.)
Some farm spokesmen explain that any increase in the Soviet appetite for grain automatically increases the bargaining power of the embargo and increases the cost of unilaterally ending the embargo.
So pressure for ending the embargo seems to have disappeared, at least for the present.