Farmers seek 'fair' return for feeding the US

President Carter's acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention added another voice to the swelling chorus seeking fairer returns for the American farmer.

"I want our farmers growing crops to feed the nation and the world, secure in the knowledge that the family farm will thrive, and with a fair return on the work they do for all of us," Mr. Carter declared. Earlier in his speech, the President accused the Republicans of forgetting the farmer and posing a threat to established farm programs.

Among the President's reasons for concern about the prosperity of American farmers doubtless is the fact that they produce 20 percent of US exports, vitally important at a time when the nation has a serious trade deficit.

In recent months the American Farm Bureau Federation, the Agricultural Council of America, and the militant American Agricultural Movement all have launched fresh drives to explain farm problems to the American public -- and toe boast about agriculture's dramatic export successes. The leading farm groups are shelving their rivalry and coordinating efforts to explain why US consumers would actually benefit from paying more for their food.

One of the newest and most articulate advocates of this cost-benefit argument is California rancher Carolyn Leavens.

Describing herself as a modern Paul Revere, Mrs. Leavens warns that without increases in the price paid to farmers for the food they grow, larger numbers of farmers will be forced out of business and "the ultimate loser is going to be the American consumer."

If more US farms go bankrupt, she insists, America will be forced to import more of its food. This shift could bring short- term savings, Mrs. Leavens agrees, but in the long term would make US consumers highly vulnerable to overseas suppliers.

So far, this Ventura, Calif., citrus grower has taken her message to California, Oregon, and Washington State. Stopping in Chicago on her way to Washington, D.C., she told the Monitor that she and the 20,000-member American Agri- Women coalition she represents may have the best chance of reaching consumers and politicians.

"We're farmers, but we're also wives and mothers and grandmothers who are used to being persuaders and negotiators," she explains.

Mrs. Leavens is campaigning for "parity" -- government- supported agricultural price levels, pegged to a specified period, designed to keep the farmer's purchasing power on a pair with that of the rest of the nation. Thus, with parity prices, inflation would whittle away equally at farm and nonfarm purchasing power, instead of continuing to take relatively larger bites from the farmer's wallet.

Mrs. Leavens speaks from experience. She manages the business side of an 800 -acre citrus and avacado ranch she and her husband built with irrigation and modern techniques on previously unfarmable land. Their ranch employs 25 full- time, year-around workers. And it struggles to survive.

Farmers "operate on borrowed capital all year long," which becomes carried-over debt after a bad year, she explains. "How do you ever get out of that debt when in the fat years all the profits go for taxes?"

As if that were not enough, she says that inheritance taxes often wipe out farms that already have been nibbled away at by the steady bite of income taxes.

An ever-widening net of federal regulations, backed by a US Department of Agriculture that represents consumers more than farmers, adds to the problem in her view.

Low food prices combined with government overregulation, overtaxation, and mounting farm debt could result in drastic cutbacks in US farm production, according to Mrs. Leavens and the American Agri-Women organization she speaks for.

The answer she suggests is public awareness of the problem -- and the consumers' and government's agreement to pay a fair price to the farmer for food.

Mrs. Leavens feels that with parity, Americans would pay 19 percent of their income for food -- rather than the present 16 percent. This change, she says, would add a modest $4 billion to the national food bill, still leaving Americans spending less of their income on food than is the case in any other country.

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