Keeping US Farms in the Family

FARMERS are skeptical by nature, always looking at the sky. And so should they be.

But in the past few years American farmers have been looking toward Washington about as frequently.

Successive national administrations, Democratic and Republican, have pledged to find answers to nagging problems - especially the steady shrinking of the number of family farms.

Country music star Willie Nelson staged his sixth Farm Aid concert last Saturday in Ames, Iowa. Mr. Nelson and other entertainers, most with rural backgrounds, have through the Farm Aid organization donated more than $10 million to individuals and agricultural organizations.

The money was helpful for those who got a share of it, but the Farm Aid concerts probably were most successful as a means for keeping the plight of farmers in the public eye. In recent years a number of proposed agriculture-policy reforms have been put forward in Congress. Action on most them has lagged, but the new Democratic administration promises increased impetus.

Meanwhile, family farmers are seeing more blue sky on the horizon. Showing self-reliance and financial responsibility, and getting help from lenders willing to write off debt in order to help the family farm system survive, they find themselves in much better shape than in recent years. According to farm economists, only some 10 percent of American farmers are in financial trouble now, as compared with more than 30 percent in 1985.

This strengthened position should help them as subsidies and services from Washington are almost certain to be diminished by budget cuts. The Clinton economic plan projects savings of $742 million over the next four years by merging the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, the Soil Conservation Service, the Farmers Home Administration, and other agencies in a single farm agency. Other bills proposed in the House and Senate feature changes in the USDA's structure and mission.

Prospects for much-needed updating of the federal government's agricultural policies seem good. To the extent they lead to more efficient federal farm programs, they deserve support.

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