Farmers will plow back China profits

The New US-Chinese grain contract may help break through the traditional farm-state dissatisfaction with Washington. Farm organization spokesmen generally see the election-eve timing of the new agreement as a blatant Carter bid for farm votes -- and as an attempt by the President to claim credit for an achievement due more to years of steady production by US farmers and aggressive salesmanship by private agricultural marketing groups.

Nonetheless, farmers are applauding the fact that, for whatever reasons, the present administration is actively promoting farm exports.

Cy Carpenter, president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, has welcomed the grain contract, saying: "This will make a more stable customer of the USSR and other countries. They will become less predatory on the American market bacause of the addition of Chinese competition."

Under the terms of the Oct. 21 Peking-Washington grain agreement, "Both sides shall seek to avoid excessive volatility in their grain trade. . . . The government of the United States of America shall seek to use its authorities to maintain the stability of United States market conditions for wheat and corn."

The agreement does include escape clauses for both parties. Nonetheless, it pledges the US Department of Agriculture to use "advance planning of production and stockbuilding" to ensure that US supplies will meet Chinese demand -- without disrupting supplies either to domestic consumers or to overseas customers who depend on the US as their breadbasket and cattle-feed storage bin.

It is because the US farmer has built up a world market for his products that he can continue to expand and to increase productivity.

Severe drought conditions this past summer did wipe out crops on thousands of acres in Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas.

But pictures of farmers surveying their fields of shriveled corn and withered cotton have obscured the fact that many other farmers not only survived the widespread drought but brought in good harvests.

One of those who is harvesting top yields of corn and soybeans this year is Douglas Erickson, who farms 1,400 acres in Mokena. Mr. Erickson, whose grandfather first planted corn here in 1925, knows how drastically conditions can vary. His cousin in Missouri "is completely burned up."

One result of the drought is that Erickson is getting top prices for his corn this year, rather than the low prices caused by last year's bumper crops and glut of grain.

As Erickson shows the difference between one of his full ears of corn and an ear that never developed fully due to insect damage, he says firmly: "I hate like heck getting a benefit from my neighbor's problem. But it could turn around and be me next year."

He knows what a bad year is like. He had one in 1974 when his soybeans yielded 12 bushels to the acres rather than this year's 50 and his corn was 40 bushels to the acre rather than this year's 100.

Erickson says he learned from that bad year and changed his ways. He and his father invested in new machinery and started planting crops earlier in the year so that they could be sure of getting a mature crop before the first frost.

"Now we are getting done planting at least three weeks earlier than then. This year we had the first frost Oct. 4, and it did us more good than harm. It killed the weeds without hurting the beans and corn."

Douglas's father and partner, Richard Erickson, remembers the dust bowl days of the early 1930s, when he began farming. Weather conditions, he says, were as bad this past summer as then.

"I'll be if we had not had the fertilizers, the good seeds, the new equipment and new techniques that all the big companies have developed for us, this year we would have had a year like the worst of the '30s," Richard Erickson says as he makes final adjustments on his huge combine before heading out for another day's harvesting.

Rain was scarce this year, he says, but thanks to modern farming methods "we can get along with one-third the moisture."

Even with America's steady growth in agricultural export sales (now topping $ 40 billion yearly), however, it takes courage for Douglas Erickson to write out his weekly $689.85 check for top-quality feed for his hogs.

Two of the Erickson's neighbors weren't in such good shape on the day this correspondent visited their farms. Both the Tilsy and Davidson harvests were set back by having combine breakdowns. David Tilsy and his father, James, were busy replacing a stipped gear underneath their combine harvester, while Dick Davidson frantically telephoned dealers to find if any had the new bearing needed to get his combine back into grain-laden fields.

Whatever the setbacks, America's harvest is going ahead -- with lower yields nationwide than last year but at a faster pace, thanks to good dry weather for harvesting and with better prices for the harvested crops.

Better prices will help the Ericksons, Tilsys, Davidsons, and other farmers. These prices are going straight back into new tractors, planters, and combines, as reflected in an unexpected upturn in farm equipment sales.

This conviction that investment pays explains why the Soviets, the Japanese, the Mexicans, and now the Chinese regard the American Midwest as their most dependable source for the grain so vital to their long-range development plans.

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