Secretary Block, meet Rodney Dangerfield.
Farm programs are controversial, no doubt, and don't get all that much respect. But it's been a long time since the folks at the Agriculture Department have seen anything like this--about 50,000 dairy farmers curdlingly mad at Secretary John R. Block.
Edward T. Coughlin, who fielded the complaints and counted them for Block, reports that 25,000 letters and about as many names on petitions have come in from dairymen miffed at the secretary.
"The closest thing we've ever had to that in the dairy area," Coughlin said last week, "was on the issue of reconstituted milk. We got about 9,000 public comments."
What precipitated the outpouring this time was Block's announcement in September that as of Dec. 1, USDA, in an effort to cut dairy production, would assess a 50-cent fee on every 100 pounds of milk marketed by farmers.
Only a few carping critics noted that Block's decision to delay collections until after the Nov. 2 elections would cost the treasury roughly $100 million in fees that otherwise would have been assessed.
To avoid possible litigation, Block asked for public comment on his plan. But of the nearly 50,000 comments recorded by Coughlin, only about 20 favored the plan. Many of the opposition remarks were engineered by milk-producer organizations, but no matter. A comment is a comment.
Notwithstanding the adverse reaction, USDA intends to begin collecting the fee Wednesday. The money is to be used in part to help offset the roughly $2 billion that USDA will spend this year to buy surplus dairy products.***
BLUE MONDAY . . . If you have nothing else to do, need shelter for an afternoon and don't mind hearing what will probably be bad news on top of bad news, USDA's Jefferson Auditorium is the place to be this week.
Farm economy experts from all over the country will be in town for the department's 59th annual agricultural outlook conference, which begins a three-day run this morning.
The outlook conference is one of the most unusual activities in all of government--an assembly of government, business and academic hot dogs in agriculture who gather to peer into crystal balls and talk about the year ahead.
The first one was held in 1923, with about two dozen participants. Among them, according to USDA records, was an H.A. Wallace, representing Midwest hog producers. Years later, he became secretary of agriculture.
The conference has grown steadily since then and now is regarded as an important stopping-off place for farmers, food companies and agribusinesses in general who want to know how the economic winds are blowing.
One might wonder why, with independent forecasters gloomy that there will be much immediate improvement in the farm economy next year, USDA would bother to put more probable bad news on parade. Well, because it's a custom--good news or bad, according to conference director Sally A.S. Michael.
"We had 1,500 participants last year, an all-time high," she said. "We have more than 700 preregistered and, by conference time, we expect between 1,300 and 1,500 people here. . . . It's open to anyone, no fees charged." ***
CROP ROTATION AND A HANGING . . . Secretary Block assures his staff that no change is contemplated, yet rumors persist that Seeley Lodwick is on the way out as undersecretary for international affairs and commodity programs. Speculation has lame-duck Reps. William C. Wampler (R-Va.) and Paul Findley (R-Ill.) in the running for the job. Both are ranking members of the House Agriculture Committee and strong supporters of President Reagan's farm policy. . . . Almost halfway through Block's term, the department finally has a full-time director of its office of public affairs. New chief flack is Earl Cox, whose most recent government service was as press secretary to Labor Secretary Raymond J. Donovan. . . . Maria J. Falcone, who was special assistant to William G. Lesher, USDA's assistant secretary for economics, has joined the Cooperative League of the U.S.A. as an executive assistant. . . . A lot of Republicans always wanted to hang Bob Bergland, who was Jimmy Carter's secretary of agriculture. Well, now they've done it--albeit only figuratively. His portrait recently was hung in USDA's main building along with those of other erstwhile secretaries. --Ward Sinclair