Courting the farm vote is tough when the economy is blooming. Status quo in agricultural policy gets an edge over more government controls

Politics in southeast Missouri never strays very far from the farm. This is a place where politicians brag about repealing the heifer tax, where the soybean market is bigger news than Wall Street. This congressional district is also the scene of the hottest and most visible battle over agriculture policy.

While the farm vote is not as pivotal nationally as in 1986 when 10 US senators faced reelection in farm states, it still plays a major role in local races around the country. Here in Missouri's Eighth Congressional District, Rep. Bill Emerson (R) and Democratic challenger Wayne Cryts have drawn clear battle lines.

Representative Emerson is a free-marketer. He supports the current farm program that emphasizes lowering price supports and allows farmers to determine how much they produce. Mr. Cryts wants just the opposite: for the government to mandate how much farmers can grow, so that supplies will go down and prices will rise.

Two years ago, when the nation's farm economy was at the bottom of a long downward spiral, Cryts, with little organization, lost to Emerson by only six percentage points. At the time, mandatory supply management was gaining attention and its supporters - such as Democrats Kent Conrad in North Dakota and Tom Daschle in South Dakota - were able to capitalize on the discontent and win seats to the US Senate.

This year, Cryts and several other farmers with similar ideas are trying to win congressional seats in Texas, California, Montana, Nebraska, Minnesota, and Illinois. Cryts (rhymes with ``kites'') has the best chances of winning, but still faces a tough fight, according to Doug Zabel, a political consultant in Washington who is working with several of the farm candidates.

But these candidates have a problem. Two years ago several of them lost badly to Republican incumbents. And now, the farm economy has improved. Republican incumbents are singing the praises of the current farm program, which was enacted three years ago.

``The 1985 farm law is working, make no mistake about it,'' Emerson told a small knot of supporters at an airport appearance in nearby Sikeston earlier this week.

``We went into 1988 with a real sense of optimism,'' adds Charles Kruse, the state's agricultural director. Except for pockets of the state hit hard by the drought, the recovery continues, he adds.

Advocates of mandatory supply control concede that the agricultural situation looks better.

``The prosperity that Reagan and them talk about is a very false prosperity,'' says Jim Hightower, Texas commissioner of agriculture.

Most farmers understand that big government subsidies and this year's drought have exaggerated the rise in farm income and prices, Cryts says. Last time, he won big in rural areas, carrying 15 of the district's 26 counties. ``We don't see any erosion of that base,'' he says. But evidence from other farm areas suggests that he may have a tougher time attracting rural voters.

In Nebraska, for example, Democratic Senate candidate Bob Kerrey has toned down his early criticism of the current farm program. A recent poll in Farm Journal, an agricultural monthly, found that only 6.5 percent of farmers support supply-management programs, while 29 percent like the current programs, and 59 percent wanted no government interference at all.

By themselves, farmers are too few to have much impact on an election. Even in this heavily agricultural district of Missouri, only about 8 percent of the voters are farmers. But the farm vote also includes a number of rural people directly and indirectly affected by the agricultural economy.

Emerson says he had trouble attracting this latter group in 1986. This year, neither camp is claiming a landslide in the tight race. But it appears that Emerson is leading at this point.

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