Farmers pitch political hay to Reagan

Republican presidential nominee Ronald Reagan may reap a rich harvest of farm and agribusiness votes next fall -- without even trying. Some political pundits say that farmers are always ready to vote out whatever party is in power. This year the observation appears particularly apt.

Many farmers, who often discourse long and eloquently on the subject, blame the Carter administration for everything from their rising production costs to the expected one-third drop in net farm income this year.

Republicans in Detroit for their party's convention appear convinced that all this economic frustration will directly benefit their presidential nominee.

"It has been a devastating year for all Kansas farmers, and they're just not going to forget it," insists Morris Kay, GOP delegate and chairman of the Kansas state Republican party.

"In the West, the great majority of farmers are going to go for Reagan because they've had all they can hack of Jimmy Carter and his double-digit inflation, government regulation, and high taxes," says Everett Snortland, another GOP delegate who is a grain farmer from Conrad, Mont. "I know a lot of farmers who are still Democrats, but this year they're going to vote for Reagan."

Even the Colorado-based American Agricultural Movement (AAM), one of the nation's most liberal farm organizations, reports that a number of members are supporting "Farmers and Ranchers For Reagan," a political action group of independents and Democrats.

"Probably the biggest percentage of our members are registered Democrats, but I think you're going to see one tremendous crossover to the Republican side this year," declares AAM spokesperson Donna McCue. "Most are more than mad. They're broke, and that's worse."

Though both President Carter and Governor Reagan ran better in rural areas than big cities in this year's primaries, some observers count it significant that Carter did not do well in the rural sections of the Midwestern agricultural states. In Kansas, many farm Democrats in five Western wheat counties preferred Sen. Edward M. Kennedy to the incumbent President. In the Nebraska primaries, Senator Kennedy again carried some 30 rural counties.

Some farmers, admittedly less than satisfied with Carter's farm policy but not sure exactly what Mr. Reagan would offer them as a substitute, received assurance of sorts two weeks ago. In a move that has proved highly popular with farmers, the Republican nominee called for an end to the administration's embargo on grain to the Soviet Union.

Mr. Reagan said that farmers have unfairly borne the "major brunt" of the policy and have "paid a terrible price." He termed the embargo both "ill-conceived" and "improperly implemented," language that since has worked its way directly into the GOP party platform.

In general, Mr. Reagan, who has tried to gracefully evade being pinned down too tightly on the full range of his agricultural policy, has criticized the Carter administration for what he sees as too much Washington managing of federal farm supplies, rather than allowing the free enterprise system to do most of the job.

He has described former Agricultural Secretary Earl Butz, who served in the Nixon administration and who farmers credit with having done as much as anyone in that job to dismantle federal price support and production control measures, as "the greatest secretary of agriculture this country has ever had."

This year's GOP platform plank on agriculture reflects that same general free-market emphasis. It also takes a slap at the current secretary of agriculture and administration, urging selection of a "qualified and effective" secretary and policy staff "who will speak up for American farmers and a President who will listen."

The plank also mentions for the first time the word "parity," an income formula used to determine federal price supports and a topic of prime concern to many farmers. But there is no promise of government parity. The plank pledges to work toward increased farmer income by supporting and refining programs bringing profitable farm prices with "the goal of surpassing parity levels in a market-oriented agricultural economy." In a similar vein, Reagan has said: "I'm for 100 percent of parity.. . . [But] I want it through the marketplace."

Why did the platform mention parity at all? Morgan Williams, agricultural assistant to Senator Dole and a man who has spent considerable time working on that section of the platform, says, "We decided to broaden our appeal.

"The Republican problem with the Democrats is that we think they've used federal price and production controls to keep farm income on the low side rather than in the middle," he explains. "The objection is not that the secretary [of agriculture] has the power or the authority to do these things -- it's how he used that power."

In general, the GOP agricultural plank urges that tax burdens and federal regulations be eased for farmers. It supports farmer-owned grain reserves "if necessary" but is "adamantly opposed" to governmental controls.

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