THE FARMERS DRIVING those tractors through Washington claim they are entitled to a lot more sympathy than the heartless cities ever give them. They also want higher prices. Those people who live in the heartless cities may well wonder about the merits of the farmers' claims -- particularly in view of the heartless inflation rate at the grocery store. Over the past year, the balance between producer and consumer has shifted significantly in the farmers' favor, and they are not entitled to still greater federal aid.
The Metropolitan Police have done a highly effective job of rounding up the demonstrators and holding down the disruption. It's now up to the politicians to explain to the tractor drivers that they are not going to get higher price supports -- and that assaulting policemen and harassing commuters will not improve their case. Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland began that process of education yesterday, and got roundly booed. But he is right.
A year ago, the farmers who came here to demonstrate had been through a genuinely difficult year. But since then farm prices, exports and profits have all risen sharply. Farmers' net income went up 40 percent last year. Over the past year wholesale beef prices have gone up by nearly one-half. Wheat is up by one-fourth. Corn has risen less, but the reason is a huge, and hugely profitable, harvest last fall. The prices that farmers got for their products rose 22 percent last year. That's just twice the rise in the prices of the things that the farmers buy. This time inflation worked in the farmers' favor.
The farmers who brought their tractors to Washington have been complaining bitterly about their debts. The debts of all farmers rose $17 billion last year, according to the Agriculture Department -- but their net assets rose $65 billion, having doubled within the past six years. Not many kinds of business have been accumulating wealth that fast.
A strong agricultural economy is vital to this country, and farming is a constant gamble on weather and markets around the world. Unlike the prices of most manufactured goods, farm prices can and do fall as well as rise. That's why farmers deserve a special kind of consideration and government support. The only question at issue is how high to set that support. For the great majority of American farmers, it's already high enough.
But the people demonstrating here are evidently not typical farmers. They seem to be preponderantly people who have taken unusually large risks. A lot of them are farmers who have borrowed heavily and recently to buy land at the current very high prices, and borrowed again for expensive equipment to work it. It is irrelevant to them that most American farmers have very low debts, in relation to the value of their land. These demonstrators tend to represent the opposite case and, if they are doing well at the moment, they are oppressed by the size of their mortgages and the threat that any future downturn presents to them.
The farm bill that Congress enacted last year provides a useful and rational kind of safety net. It established a special emergency loan fund with generous conditions of eligibility and a low interest rate. It provided $4 billion and went into effect last September, but so far only about $900 million of it has actually been used. That seems to be another indication that these demonstrations are being generated less by any present distress than by fears of an uncertain future.
But the past year has been a good one for most American farmers. The concessions that the demonstrators now demand would be wildly inflationary. The demonstrators' demands come down to saying that they just want more. But then, who doesn't?