Keeping them down on the farm

THOUSANDS of US farmers are starting to take to their fields - putting in spring crops that are several weeks behind their normal planting cycles due to adverse weather. How well the seedings go - and how well the crops actually grow during the months ahead - will have a major impact on whether many financially troubled farmers make it through to another year.

The size of the crops will also directly affect food prices at the supermarket.

Despite an enviable food-production process, all is not well on many a farm. The current economic recovery appears to be bypassing many parts of rural America, where farmers face mounting debt.

Indeed, without the cooperation of all the main elements in the US farm economy - including federal and state governments, the banking community, and rural farm equipment and supply businesses - large numbers of farmers could find themselves financially pressed during the months ahead. The Reagan administration estimates that as many as 4 percent of the nation's 2.4 million farmers could face insolvency this year.

Every possible step must be taken to prevent such a major attrition of farming households.

The challenges facing farmers, of course, are known: huge debts, in part stemming from financial overextension by farmers during the boom days of the 1970s, when soaring inflation pushed up land values. Now, many farmers who overborrowed on those inflated acres find their land values plummeting. Yet debt - and interest rates - remain high.

Moreover, large crops in some cases (such as wheat) have kept prices down. Another bumper wheat crop is expected this year. Finally, US farm exports are running into the high value of the dollar abroad, which makes US commodities expensive vis-a-vis competing products.

The main problem for the moment, especially in the Midwest farm belt, is what happens regarding the spring corn crop. As of early this week, only 10 percent of the crop was seeded because of adverse weather, compared with 31 percent at this time in most years. Fortunately, farmers, if they can't get the crop in, can always turn to quick-maturing varieties of corn; or they can substitute other crops, such as soybeans.

Three steps seem appropriate at this moment:

* Federal farm credit agencies and commercial banks should do all that they can to help endangered farmers make it through this summer.

If US banking agencies can find ways to renegotiate loans and give special financial help to debtor nations in Latin America and elsewhere, they can surely find ways to help farmers.

* Washington must step up its export programs.

* States and local government agencies should be wary of forced sales - or even sales in general - that divert valuable crop-growing lands to nonfarm purposes.

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