Few changes in overall farm policy expected by agricultural historian

When angry farmers "tractorcaded" Washington two years ago, the Department of Agriculture's longtime historian, Wayne Rasmussen, reassured the administration: Farmers have threatened food boycotts for 50 years, without success.

Now Mr. Rasmussen is using the same sense of historial perspective to dismiss talk of major changes in farm policy under the new Reagan administration.

With the exception of President Eisehower's secretary of agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson, "who attempted to eliminate or severely cut back price support programs, but failed," says Rasmussen, each new secretary has pursued the same basic policies. Each, says this historian, has had broad bipartisan support in Congress for his farm policies.

He fully expects that the new Reagan administration will prove true to past form by rushing into office filled with ideas which seem brand new -- but which the department's records will show have all been tried before.

Rasmussen does expect that the new administration will want to carry through on the President-elect Ronald Reagan's campaign promises to pare down the food stamp program and cut back regulatory controls affecting the agricultural sector. But he foresees little actual change, even in these target areas, because "these programs are based on law" and based on substantial bipartisan agreement.

He is equally confident that the farmers' demand that the Department of Agriculture return to being run for farmers, not consumers, won't be met. Instead, he sees the department maintaining its "devotion to the public interest in the production of food and its efficient distribution." He sees this consistently balanced approach dating back to 1936 when President Roosevelt added a new objective to the department's mandate: "the protection of consumers by assuring adequate supplies of food and fiber."

City folks -- along with many farmers -- may be puzzled by half a century of talk about parity, set-aside, soil bank, ever-normal granary, marketing quotas, commodity loans, and so on. Even better understood areas such as the school lunch, food stamp, and farmer- owned grain reserve programs seem to present a picture of constant farm policy changes -- or total confusion.

Rasmussen's answer is a steady stream of studies coming from his office, part of the Agriculture Department's Economics, Statistics, and Cooperatives Service. His recent pamphlet, "Price-Support and Adjustment Programs From 1933 Through 1978," details how today's seemingly chaotic variety of price supports and production controls have developed.

Support programs are traced straight back to George N. Peek, whose Moline Plow Company was ruined by the farm price collapse following World War I. Concluding that "You can't sel a plow to a busted customer," in 1921 Mr. Peek and a colleague "presented a plan for selling farm products for domestic consumption at fair exchange value and surplus products abroad at world price."

After a series of congressional battles and presidential vetoes, Peek's proposal led to the Agricultural Adjustment Act of 1933, with its goal of "parity" to tie farm incomes to nonfarm incomes.

After tracing through subsequent programs to help farmers cope with the effects of depression, war, weather, world demand, and, more recently, escalating energy prices, Rasmussen concludes that current legislation has been "in most respects a continuation of programs and goals which had been in effect for 45 years."

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