AMERICAN agriculture appears headed for changes long hinted at but held off for decades by a monolithic bureaucracy. The heirs of farmers who unhitched their plows and took up muskets to establish a nation are, in the late 20th century, experiencing unavoidable challenges to a system that has served American consumers, and many others abroad, very well for the most part.
United States Sen. Bob Kerrey (D) of Nebraska notes that farmers face a crisis of "excessive debt, spiraling costs, and low prices" that has punctured agriculture's "balloon of prosperity." It is a "quiet crisis," he says, "being felt personally by individual farm families." He speaks of a "gnawing sense" on the part of family farmers that their style of agriculture and way of life can no longer be sustained.
The need for reform is evident, and the challenge has been taken up by members of Congress and the new Clinton administration. The US agricultural support system established over the years - crop and export subsidies, county agricultural extension offices, and other services - has become bloated. The ideal of the "family farm" has to a significant degree given way to the corporate farm.
Many owners of smaller farms, encouraged to go into debt to expand their family operations, have been hurt by economic recession, some driven to sell out to their large neighbors. Now the USDepartment of Agriculture is being criticized as an overgrown, overstaffed system with too many agents in too many offices across the country, with too much staff and less and less to do.
Last year US Sens. Patrick Leahy (D) of Vermont and Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana won support for drastic cutbacks in an overgrown and underutilized Agricultural Extension Service. Former US Rep. Mike Espy (D) of Mississippi, now President Clinton's secretary of agriculture, inherits the task of guiding the White House side of restructuring the USDA.
Already it is evident that he will have plenty of advice. Most of it, we hope, will be nonpartisan and nonparochial.
In short, this is one initiative with the potential to attract nationwide support and to reinvigorate an indispensable segment of the American economy.