A remark by Agriculture Secretary John R. Block in an Omaha speech was misquoted in yesterday's Business & Finance section. Block did not say "American agriculture has been a pampered, spoiled child." He was referring to European agriculture. The incorrect remark was reported by United Press International, which later filed a correction of which The Post was unaware.
A record-sized wheat crop already is in the bins and now the combines are bringing in whopper crops of corn and soybeans, but the traditional color and joy of fall harvest are absent from America's farms this year.
Instead, there is foreboding and frustration. From the grain states of the Midwest and Great Plains, from the cotton empire of the Southwest to the dairy farms of North, South and East, the gloom is the same.
And there is a stirring in the countryside -- farmers talking openly of some vague kind of revolt, farmers reviving the penny auctions of the 1930s to thwart foreclosures, farmers pressuring legislators for help, rival farm groups uniting to focus their discontent.
Like the rest of the economy, U.S. agriculture is going through difficult times. Agricultural leaders and farm-belt legislators, rarely at a loss to make rhetorical hay, call it a depression. The Reagan administration terms it a recession that has lasted longer than anticipated.
Whatever it is called, the picture is not bright on most crop-producing U.S. farms. Commodity prices have slid all year and every sign is that they will stay down through the rest of the year. For example, corn that sold for $2.87 a bushel in August, 1981, averaged $2.19 last month. It is expected to average around $2 in the last quarter of 1982.
Another bounteous harvest has helped make 1982 as economically dismal as most indicators suggested it would be. And throughout farm country there is an uneasy feeling that worse will come in 1983 with mounting farm foreclosures, bankruptcies and forced liquidations.
The Department of Agriculture said this month that 1982 net farm income, adjusted for inflation, will dip to its lowest point in half a century, in part because of projected record harvests of wheat (2.82 billion bushels), corn (8.32 billion) and soybeans (2.31 billion).
Pause a second and consider corn, the biggest and most valuable crop because of exports and its use at home in producing milk, meat, poultry, sweeteners, booze and fuel alcohol. This year's harvest would fill enough railroad hopper cars to reach nearly around the world--about 23,000 miles.
Now, that is a lot of corn. Add to it the huge amounts of wheat and soybeans, oats, barley and rye that farmers produced this year and you begin to sense the size of the problem. There's not even room to store it adequately. USDA is allowing emergency storage of grains in rail cars, surplus barges and other facilities not ordinarily qualified for keeping grains.
Despite the trumpets of doom on the farm, all of the news in 1982 has not been bad. The livestock sector, according to the agricultural economists at Chase Econometrics, is "in one of the most profitable periods it has experienced in the last decade."
Part of the reason for high beef, pork and lamb prices is that the abundant grain supplies have made it relatively inexpensive for farmers to feed their stock. That, coupled with herds reduced due to low prices in the last several years, has brought supply in line with demand.
And dairy farmers will do reasonably well in 1982, even with costly federal price supports curtailed by Congress at the insistence of the Reagan administration. Cheap feed has encouraged farmers to market their grain in the form of milk, cheese and butter. The price supports, assuring the government will buy all that farmers cannot sell otherwise, will cost taxpayers around $2 billion this year.
Unlike the rest of the economy, one of agriculture's problems is that it is too productive for its own good. Farmers caught in the price-cost squeeze grow more in an effort to maintain their income. The more they grow, the more prices are depressed and the more the vicious circle tightens.
Chase Econometrics recently put it this way: "Excessive supplies coupled with low grower eligibility for government supports are expected to make government floor prices ineffective, thereby driving farm grain prices so low as to necessitate further stop-gap agricultural legislation this fall to provide market support."
Such a prospect seems unlikely. Congress, having approved advance-payment and mandatory acreage-setaside programs only last month, is scheduled to adjourn in October for the elections. And Secretary John R. Block still is weighing options on amounts of land to be kept out of production in 1983.
Resisting further budget outlays, the administration insists that farmers must tough it out and not expect federal handouts. Speaking in Omaha last week, Block reiterated the Reagan reluctance to intervene more assertively.
"American agriculture has been a pampered, spoiled child," Block told a subcommittee session of the President's Export Council.
Pampered, spoiled children obviously must be disciplined, and 1982 is turning out to be the farmers' equivalent of being sent to their rooms in punishment.
Notwithstanding the attitude expressed by Block, the administration and Congress have engineered changes in federal support programs that promise to funnel upwards of $3 billion in advance payments on 1983 production into the agricultural economy before Dec. 31 -- a welcome antidote to cash-flow problems.
And in another bow to farm organizations that have complained bitterly that USDA's Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) is cruelly pressuring delinquent borrowers to get out of farming before they are foreclosed on, the House took further action.
Over administration objections, the House this month adopted a new farm credit bill that stopped short of the repayment moratorium sought by many, but would require FmHA to reschedule and defer repayments by delinquent farmers who can demonstrate they have a chance of getting out of the hole next year. The Senate Agriculture Committee quickly passed a similar deferral plan last week.
How much -- and whether -- these actions will help right the listing farm economy remains to be seen. But the price of a bushel of grain is more than an abstract number -- it has all sorts of ramifications for agribusiness concerns, for bankers and rural community suppliers.
The depressed commodity prices have had a severe impact on farmers' cash flows and curtailed their spending in many areas. Fertilizer and equipment sales are down. Farm suppliers in rural communities across the country report hard times. Worldwide economic stagnation has slowed demand for U.S. farm products, and while export volume is up, the income is down.
Continuing high interest rates and rising production costs, plus declining land prices in combination with a general tightening of traditionally liberal farm-credit policy, have conspired to push many farmers to the break point.
The anticipation of widespread foreclosures after the harvest is in and accounts are squared has touched off a quick reaction. Throughout the Midwest, farmers are mobilizing, talking and plotting over ways to make the point that they need more government help to protect their markets.
The Minnesota Farmers Union, for instance, is calling on farmers to join an "orderly revolt" of undefined dimension against federal farm policy. Another group there, the Citizens Organization Acting Together (COACT), has set up a "farmers' survival hotline" to collect data on faltering farms and to generate support for state farm foreclosure moratorium legislation.
COACT played a role in orchestrating a widely publicized penny auction, where farmers packed a farm closeout sale and bid no more than one cent on any of the items. The sale was shut down and the farm owner got a new chance to settle with his lender. More penny auctions are in the works.
In Iowa, the upheaval has led to formation of an Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, an unusual linking of the National Farmers Organization, National Farmers Union, American Agriculture Movement, the U.S. Farmers Association and the state arm of Rural America, all groups that ordinarily go their separate ways.
At their urging, farmers in a dozen Midwestern states are planning Farm Crisis Day rallies on Oct. 2 to highlight their demands for more forceful federal action to boost prices and for a moratorium on forced farm sales until the economy straightens out.
"This situation is bringing our people together," said David Ostendorf, one of the coalition's organizers in Des Moines. "There has been significant progress in uniting the organizations . . . We don't know where it will lead, but regardless of the November election, things will remain very volatile out here."
He added, "FmHA is increasing pressure on farmers to get out now, before they are forced out. After the harvest is in, when we are looking at $1.60 corn and ridiculously low prices for soybeans, feelings will be running very high. It is a situation worth keeping your eye on."