Farmers eye light at end of Soviet grain embargo tunnel

By , Staff correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor

The Reagan administration has helped plant a fresh crop of hints that it is preparing to scrap the 15-month-old Soviet grain embargo imposed by President Carter in response to Soviet aggression in Afghanistan.

But farmers are eyeing this crop as they would any other --

Clearly farmers would like to have the embargo lifted, since it would give them more reason to plant fencerow-to-fencerow and still expect good prices at harvest time.

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But until the embargo is lifted, and probably until they win a written guarantee of no more similar embargoes, they won't bank on good prices for their crops any more than they bank on good weather.

One reason for skepticism is that farmers heard presidential candidate Reagan promise to lift the embargo months ago. But chief farm belt suspicions center on the present political climate.

Even in the "Show Me State" of Missouri, everyone knows that Mr. Reagan's budget has run into trouble and needs fresh momentum to overcome congressional roadblocks.

An obvious source of support for the Reagan budget is in the farm states -- and from solid and powerful Republican senators like Robert Dole of Kansas and Charles H. Percy of Illinois. With Congress in recess, it's a good time politically to float embargo-lifting stories to help loyal congressmen please the crowds during visits to their home states.

Meanwhile, Office of Management and Budget director David A. Stockman gave the first indication last week of new administration determination to end the embargo. Previously, Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block had stood alone among Cabinet members in opposing the embargo.

But Mr. Stockman explained carefully to the Senate Agriculture Committee that rather than establishing new price-support programs for farmers, "What we ought to do instead is recognize that this administration does not intend in the future to use embargoes on farm commodities as a tool of foreign policy."

Stockman stressed that the current embargo, cutting US farmers off from the important Soviet market for US grain, is "something we inherited."

Senators Percy and Dole have been quick to add their own explanations of why now is a good time to end the embargo.

President Carter imposed the embargo as a protest over Soviet intervention in Afghanistan. Reagan and Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. added another reason to keep the embargo -- as a "signal" to the Soviets that the administration strongly protests the Soviet threat to Poland.

Now farm belt congressmen are watching the Polish situation closely, reading into it clear signs that the Soviets have pulled back from earlier plans to intervene in Poland.

According to Percy, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the embargo should be lifted now because "We can say to the Soviet Union that since they heeded our advice concerning Poland, we are willing to show that international cooperation can exist."

Farmers also point to positive foreign policy reasons for ending the embargo. They warn that every day the embargo remains in effect further weakens America's reputation as a reliable supplier of agricultural products.

This reputation is far too important to risk, they say, at a time when 12 countries have joined the "billion dollar club" made up of countries that import

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