Backlash brewing over soaring federal aid to farmers

Kansas Sen. Robert J. Dole has amassed a stack of newspaper clippings with ominous warnings. They tell a story that's moved from the farm pages to evening news shows: The cost of the US support programs for agriculture has shot up almost beyond belief.

This year farm support will cost at least $21 billion. Just two years ago the price tag was only $4 billion. The estimates do not even include the cost of the payment-in-kind (PIK) program, which gives farmers surplus crops in return for leaving some fields idle.

This increase comes at a time when total net farm income in the United States is only about $20 billion.

No one is more aware of these figures than GOP Senator Dole and his fellow lawmakers from farm states. An aide says the Kansan has the pile of news stories ready to bolster his arguments for a freeze in price support payments in wheat, feed grains, rice, and cotton. The freeze, proposed by the Reagan administration, would save the government close to $4 billion.

In both houses of Congress and in both parties, farm-belt lawmakers are worried that unless they can reduce costs, the entire farm program will be jeopardized.

''When you look to the future, what I see is the American public being turned off agriculture again,'' says Rep. Tony Coelho, a Democrat whose central California district is among the biggest agricultural producers in the country. The huge increases will ''get people talking about agricultural welfare,'' he says. ''We haven't had that since the 1960s.''

Rep. Barney Frank has already fired the first shot. A Massachusetts Democrat with mostly urban and surburban constituents, he is making plans to lead a movement to overhaul the farm program when it comes up for reauthorization in 1984. ''The program has gotten stupider and stupider,'' he charges, calling it the ''fastest growing, non-means-tested entitlement,'' because farmers are paid supports regardless of their incomes.

So far, he concedes, the agriculture problems are not very high on the agendas of his urban colleagues, who rarely pay much heed to agriculture. But he says ''more and more people'' are criticizing the farm programs.

Some farm groups see the trouble brewing and are joining the outcry against the cost growth. ''We've had a fivefold increase in the cost of farm programs in the last two years,'' says Bruce Hawley, assistant director of the American Farm Bureau Federation's Washington office. ''This is politically unacceptable and philosophically unacceptable on the farm.''

Farmers are taking the government aid, he concedes, ''but even as they take it, they recognize that the nonfarm members of Congress cannot stand idly by for that kind of expenditure.''

The Farm Bureau and some grain associations are backing the Reagan proposal to freeze target prices. Either the friends of agriculture must fix the program, says Mr. Hawley, or else its foes will.

''It is giving us a black eye because the farmer never asked for this,'' says Kansas Rep. Pat Roberts (R) of the farm program's huge costs. ''All he wanted is a (good) price'' for his products.

Congressman Roberts and Democratic colleagues find there is blame to spread around for allowing the program to spin out of control. Among the explanations:

Surpluses. Both 1981 and 1982 produced enormous crops, partly because of excellent weather in the US and around the world. Moreover, since 1980 was an election year, the Carter administration did not attempt to curb planting as much as it should have. Then the Reagan administration took over, with a policy of noninterference, and again the government failed to curb planting.

So farmers planted too much, the prices dropped, and the federal price-support programs automatically kicked in.

Fewer world markets. The Carter administration embargoed the sale of grain to the Soviets following their invasion of Afghanistan. At the same time, the world economic recession cut down on purchases of American agricultural products.

The strong dollar. The US dollar is so expensive that it makes American agriculture exports cost too much to compete with other nations.

''There are so many variables, and they all went wrong,'' says Congressman Roberts. Meanwhile, despite the government aid, many farmers are near bankruptcy , and farm income is the lowest in real-dollar terms since the 1930 depression.

A few good signs are now on the horizon for agriculture, however. The US has just completed trade agreements that guarantee an increase in grain sales to Russia and open the door for new food sales to China.

And while the PIK program has brought a barrage of criticism for paying millions of dollars worth of crops to wealthy farm conglomerates, it has succeeded in reducing farm acreage this year. Predictions for the cost of next year's farm programs are down to about $10.4 billion, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

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