Farmers on Soviet grain-sale limit: patriotic out

Grain growers in the Midwest and elsewhere are meeting President Carter's decision to withhold the sale of 17 million tons of US grain worth about $2 billion from the Soviet Union with mixed emotions. To them it is a matter of patriotism tempered by the pocketbook.

"Our people are patriotic. Our people know that if you have an enemy, you don't feed him and keep him strong," says DeVon Woodland, president of the National Farmers Organization.

"I heard most of the President's speech, and I think that morally it's the right thing to do," Kansas hog and wheat farmer Randy Van De Riet says. "I think everyone thinks it's the right thing to do. You can't send them all that grain and strengthen them. But if the price of wheat drops, well, I don't know. . . ."

How did Colorado wheat grower Bill Warren take the President's address?

"Not very well," he says. "He didn't go all the way. We can't sell grain to the Russians, but it looks like we can still sell them Coca Cola. If he was really serious about an embargo, he should have embargoed all exports to the Soviet Union."

Grain farmers and the organizations that represent them are concerned that the American farmer will bear a disproportionate share of the burden of trade restrictions against the Soviets. This feeling persists even though Mr. Carter outlined several steps he would like to take to ease the economic impact of the embargo on US farmers.

"I've seen promises like that before, and the government didn't always come through," one grower says.

The question of patriotism vs. the checkbook is a vexing one for many farmers. Generally speaking, they are a patriotic group. But they have families to support.

"My farm is not a farm, it's a business," says David Miller, who grows corn and soybeans on 750 acres in Illinois. "When the margins get slim, the people who can't live on those margins go into another business. If I don't make it in this business, then I'll go into another business."

Much of that margin for many US grain growers comes from export sales. And the Soviet Union is a good customer

"The 1980 winter wheat crop has been planted with the idea of substantial demand from the Soviets in mind," Texas wheat grower Winston Wilson says. "The [farmers'] financial commitment has already been made."

Concern over the impact of restricted grain sales on family bankbooks is overshadowed by a projected decline in net farm income. Government and private economists say the decline could range from 10 to 20 percent -- the result of higher fuel, transportation, and other costs. Grain growers will be anxiously watching grain prices, which, they note, tend to drop when there is even the hint of an embargo.

Moreover, grain farmers are concerned about the long- range effects of the embargo on international markets.

"We've been a credible supplier to the world," says Dean Kleckner, who grows corn, soybeans, and hogs on a 720-acre farm near Rudd, Iowa. "What we're telling customers is that we're reliable until you do something we don't like."

Adds Mr.Wilson, "Export interruption makes people like Japan and South Korea nervous, and they begin to look for other sources of supply."

Furthermore, some growers suggest that even if the Soviets cannot make up the loss of US grain completely, they still can take their appetite to the world market under the assumption that a little grain is better than none at all. The effect, growers say, would be an increase in world grain prices and a disruption of grain transportation.

And there is another major question in the minds of farmers: Will the grain embargo be effective?

Growers and grain traders note that because of the secretive nature of the international trade it might be possible for the Soviets to purchase US grain via other countries -- in effect "laundering" the grain.

They also point out the neccessity of cooperation from other grain-producing nations is stemming sales to the Soviets. President Carter said in his Jan. 4 speech that he was confident other "principal" grain-exporting countries "will not replace these quantities of grain by additional shipments on their part to the Soviet Union."

Afterward it was revealed that Canada and Australia would cooperate with the US in its move to halt the grain shipment. But, farmers ask, "What about Argentina?"

There is little doubt that the wisdom and even the morality of using grain sales as a political tool will be the subject of some heated discussion in this election year. The subject surfaced at the Republican debate Jan. 5 in Des Moines. One candidate recalled President Carter's campaign pledge not to use grain as a political weapon and voiced his opposition to the President's decision to stop the feed grain sales to the USSR.

But several farm organization spokesmen say, despite the conventional political wisdom about the effects on an agricultural export embargo on votes in an agricultural area, an effective program of income supports for farmers can blunt adverse reaction at the polls.

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