File this one under Trees, can't-see-the-forest-for-the. . . .
The House Agriculture Committee spent 40 minutes one recent morning debating the creation of a new advisory board of farmers who would counsel the government on the real costs of farm production.
In the farm world, this concept is important, because farm financing and government support programs are tied closely to production costs. Calculate the cost figures wrong, as most farmers believe they are calculated, and the farmer is in trouble.
So it was a rollicking debate. Everyone agreed that the government needs to know more about production costs. But they barely touched on the economic factors that bedevil more and more farmers: high energy, land and equipment costs, market prices are so low that production costs are not recovered.
The committee approved the advisory board idea and made it part of the 1981 farm bill that will guide U.S. agricultural over the next four years. The new farm legislation will be debated on the House and Senate floors within the next month or so.
As the fine print of the House and Senate bills comes clearer, there is a growing sense on Capitol Hill and in the farm community that Congress again has fumbled a prime chance to deal with crucial issues that will affect American agriculture for years to come.
Some of these issues include the amount of government support that the farm sector should receive; whether limits should be placed on federal aid to large farmers who need it least; whether federal policies aggravate land and water misuse; whether federal assistance should go to landowners who do not farm their own land; how farm-credit policy works against young, beginning farmers; how to stem serious soil-erosion; how rural development should be tailored to farm policy.
The House and Senate farm bills as now written, however, generally steer clear of these issues.Some examples:
The crop price support structure that tends to reward the largest farmers most has been left pretty must intact. Loan rates would be raised slightly above present levels, not enough, farm groups say, to assure farmers an adequate return on investment.
The Reagan administration's zeal for increasing farm exports has been embraced with little discussion of the increased pressure such a policy may put on American soil and water or on domestic consumer prices.
Peanut-state legislators, led by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) Rep. Charlie Rose (D-N.C.), crushed the administration's effort to eliminate the acreage allotment system that allows non-farmers to profit from the growing of peanuts on their land with federal price supports.
Next to no new ideas show up in either bill to combat the growing national problem of topsoil erosion -- intensified in part because of the pressure to produce more, which leads in part to the cultivation of lands susceptible to erosion or not suited for certain crops.
The scene was set for discussion of issues such as these when former secretary of agriculture Bob Bergland, just before leaving office in January, released his department's lengthy study of structural problems underlying American agriculture.
The study was controversial -- small farmers tended to applaud it, large farmers criticized it -- but it raised questions that all sides agreed needed addressing.
Some House members, led by Rep. Jim Weaver (D-Ore.), tried to spotlight those questions with several days of hearings before the House and Senate committees began work on the 1981 farm legislation. The structures debate was superficially interpreted as Big Guys vs. Little Guys, but it wasn't exactly that way.
Among the more surprising witnesses was conservative farm economist Don Paarlberg, a figure in the Nixon and Ford administrations, who stressed that many questions raised by the study could no longer be ignored, saying that U.S. farm policy had in fact favored large producers and contributed to unhealthy concentrations of economic power in agribusiness.
The Reagan administration's reaction to the study was muted. Its farm bill proposals reflected little or no sensitivity to the study. The study itself has become the equivalent of a rare book at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"We spent over $1 million at USDA to tell Congress it was time for a change of direction in agricultural policy," said Rep. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.). "But there is not a single change of direction in our bill. Members of Congress do not want change. . . . This is the worst bill we've produced around here in a long time."
"In normal years, this would have been the time and place to get into the pressing policy issues," said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), "but Congress is focusing almost entirely on dollars and cents. We are probably doomed to no more than that."
"It has disappointed all of us that the farm bill has been treated essentially as a mechanical procedure to come within the budget," agreed Charles (Chuck) Frazier, Washington representative for the National Farmers Organization.
"I think we've done a lousy job on this bill," said Sen. John Melcher (D-Mont.), who is planning a series of floor amendments to boost government price support loan rates for basic farm commodities, which he sees as the easiest way to force more realistic market prices.
Perspectives and policies of other farm groups vary, but there is agreement that the committees have not faced up to the most pressing issues.
"They have missed a lot of opportunities. They have ignored every one of the major recommendations of the structures study. We simply do not have a food and agriculture policy in this country. Never have had and we won't until we get serious about this subject. But don't quote me. I have to continue working with these guys," said a lobbyist for a major farmer organization.
David Senter of the American Movement said, "We're disgruntled with what the two committees have done. We heard all through the last election campaign that the new president would put an opportunity for profit back into farming. What the agriculture committees have done is simply inadequate."
Leahy put it another way: "Our bill doesn't say a helluva lot to rural America. I'd be very nervous is I lived in rural America."