Agri-future

Throughout the United States these days, there is special activity taking place on many of the nation's farms. Here and there giant combines roll back and forth across still-sunlit fields, gathering in the harvest. On hundreds of thousands of farms, steps are under way to prepare for winter. That means setting aside fodder for animals. Making barns airtight.

But something else is also happening out on the farms - something that may be unknown to the vast majority of urban Americans who, after all, tend to take America's agricultural bounty for granted. That is that on far too many farms the adding machines, calculators, and personal computers are now churning out profit-and-loss estimates after what has been a particularly difficult year - a year marked by what weather experts say is the worst drought in the US in the past 50 years.

Congress, the Reagan administration - and especially the American people - would also be justified in taking a calibrated look at American agriculture in the wake of that drought. In doing so, the balance sheet has some clear surprises.

* Most important, some analysts believe that the farming community has come through the drought better than had been thought possible a few months back, following those first searing, sun-scorched days in July when the severe weather began to take hold.

That is not to say there have not been major problems for farmers or that the crops are as large as they would have been. The corn crop will be down, by one early October estimate, at around 4.26 billion bushels compared with the record 8.4 billion bushels in 1982. The soybean crop is also down, to around 1.52 billion bushels compared with 2.27 billion bushels last year. The wheat crop, harvested earlier, is down only slightly - to an estimated 2.41 billion bushels, from 2.82 billion bushels in 1982.

* The upshot is that while there will be enough commodities to supply both consumer and export demand, domestic food prices will climb next year, including prices for pork and beef. That is expected because feed costs will be up due to the smaller harvest.

* The plus side of the equation, however, is that by and large US agriculture - and that means most farmers - made it through the drought without major loss. Why? Largely because of farm support programs. Federal farm aid this year will total well over $20 billion. Compare that with $13 billion spent in 1982.

Because of the administration's PIK (payment in kind) program, farmers will receive over $10 billion worth of commodities as payment for having cut back planting of a number of crops.

Thus, for many farmers the PIK program has turned out to be a margin of survival in a tough year.

But what about the future? How much longer will American taxpayers willingly expend billions of dollars to subsidize agriculture? The Reagan administration, for its part, has philosophically wanted to pull the federal government more and more out of the subsidy business - moving as close as possible to a more free market-oriented agriculture. In practice, as PIK shows, the administration has been willing to go along with federal support programs, although using government commodities rather than cash outlays. Congress, for its part, has been wary of any major alteration in federal crop supports. Given the upcoming presidential election, will it really be possible for the nation's highest officials to undertake a comprehensive review of US farm policy?

Such a review is vitally needed at a time of mounting budget deficits. Why could not a presidential commission comprised of experts be appointed to look at federal farm costs and programs?

Particular questions to be examined: What would be the impact of preventing scheduled increases in target prices? How much more would federal farm costs have been without PIK? Should PIK be expanded? Should there be a cap on total federal farm spending? How can farm exports be increased?

In the meantime, Congress and the administration should take all appropriate steps - such as providing more disaster funds - to aid those farmers who have been severely hurt by adverse weather conditions. Bankruptcies are expected to increase this year. Obviously, all Americans have a vested interest in ensuring that US agriculture remains the outstanding and productive enterprise that it is.

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