A New Era for Farming

FEDERAL farm supports came in with the 1930s, when the dust bowl was literally drying up and blowing away much of American agriculture. Now, from discussions under way in Congress, it appears supports could go out with the 1990s.

The battle over federal agricultural spending has just been joined, however, and it is far from certain how much of the $10 billion or so spent each year to support the prices of farm products and encourage their export will get chopped.

A spate of news stories about wealthy absentee ''farmers'' getting huge payments from the Agriculture Department will doubtless add to the momentum for change. But even many legitimate farmers, who actually put in long days on the land, are ready to see the current subsidy system reformed, if not dismantled outright.

Ideas for accomplishing that abound: a gradual phaseout of direct subsidy payments, expanded versions of crop insurance, raising the ''floor'' price paid by the government to underwrite crop storage, or simply junking subsidies altogether in favor of an open world market for food.

The approach receiving the most attention is that of Sen. Richard Lugar (R), chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. He would sharply reduce, over the next five years, the so-called ''deficiency payments'' designed to guarantee farmers a price approaching their cost of production.

Others say a better tack is to get rid of deficiency payments by raising the price ''floor'' set by the government in order to force large commodities buyers to offer farmers a better price.

The advocates of a free market say that subsidies in the United States -- which spawn subsidies elsewhere -- are only keeping American farmers from a ''golden age'' promised by huge potential food markets in China, India, Indonesia, and other population centers. If those countries are encouraged to engage in their own subsidized agriculture, they add, the trade-off will be accelerated losses of rain forests and biodiversity.

While a total government withdrawal from the agricultural marketplace is unlikely -- and probably unwise -- those crafting this year's farm bill should have an eye on the rest of the world and its potential as a buyer of US farm products, not just on farm constituents back home who may have grown too used to their government check.

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