America's farm problem

The US government's crop estimates released just yesterday show that significantly less corn and soybeans will be grown this year on American farms due to adverse weather. But this does not change the long-range picture of continued major surpluses in several areas of US agriculture - and an urgent need for Congress, when it reconvenes next month, to get together with the Reagan administration on a plan to reduce over-production.

It is time for statesmanship, giving primacy to the national need rather than succumbing to the temptation to play politics as usual with an eye to the 1984 elections. There need be no resumption of the recent filibuster by several senators from grain-producing states, when Senate Republican leaders tried to gain passage of an administration bill to set a ceiling on farm subsidy levels. That would seem a minimum first step.

Everyone agrees the farm surplus problem is enormously complicated and does not lend itself either to simple or drastic solutions. There are problems of overproduction, expense, and inequity among farmers.

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America is growing more food than it can consume and sell, and more than there is any reasonable need to store. In a time of $200 billion budget deficits the national farm programs are too expensive to continue without change: The US government (and taxpayers) are paying some $22 billion to farmers this fiscal year to keep their incomes up in one way or another. This is four times the average of the 1970s.

Farmers this summer who agreed to reduce their plantings are being given grain or other crops from the national storehouse in return for not growing their own. The aim of this payment-in-kind (PIK) program is to reduce the surplus, but it is being criticized as the antithesis of the very work ethic that many Americans are trying to restore to the nation's fiber. Additionally, a few large farmers are believed to receive some $1 million in crops for not doing anything themselves. Thus the program is politically vulnerable.

Finally, many farmers continue to have the major financial troubles that much of the farm belt has experienced in recent years.

Several relatively recent steps have modestly helped trim the surplus. One is the agreement to sell grain once again to the Soviet Union. For the next five years that reduces US oversupply by 9 million to 12 million tons annually. Another helpful step is the PIK plan.

The hot, dry weather in the cornbelt this summer that has decreased the size of the corn crop may help reduce overproduction in the short run. Many farmers who chose to grow all they could and stay out of the government subsidy program this summer now rue their decision, and next year may agree to substantially reduce their planted acreage in return for subsidies.

For wheat it is a different story, as hot summer weather results in a bumper wheat crop. Means must be found to take some wheat land out of production, too.

In any case it is important that the levels of subsidy not be unrealistically high, as the Reagan administration believes they now are, though farmers of course are entitled to a reasonable living standard.

Despite the obvious national need it is unrealistic at this time to expect too much of Congress and the administration in the way of basic but gradual reforms of the government's farm program. All politicians are keenly aware of the importance of the farm vote in next year's national as well as some state elections. But the time to start work is now, so that farmers as well as the nation can make their plans well in advance of next year's planting season.

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