Most everyone has seen some media coverage about the farm situation, particularly about how farmers are having a tough time making ends meet these days. Not all farmers, of course, but enough to keep the topic in the news.
And now even Hollywood has taken an interest. A considerable amount of publicity has been given to those motion-picture productions that dramatize the plight of farm families.
Well, the picture out there in farm country may not be as bad as Hollywood paints it. But it certainly isn't as good as we'd like to see it, either. Many farmers are undergoing tremendous hardship because of circumstances beyond their control.
Those high interest rates are still cutting deeply into the cost of doing business. The strong dollar is putting a damper on our sales abroad, and this holds down the prices farmers are receiving at the market. And we in the government who should be in a position to help -- well, we're actually contributing to the problem.
Why? Because, in a nutshell, we in government are forced to administer farm policies that were designed to serve agriculture 50 years ago. They are policies that won't work in today's world. But now we have an opportunity to change all that.
Agricultural policy is at a crossroads. Farm legislation expires this year, and that means we can write a new farm bill in 1985 -- one, we hope, that will correct the problems that have kept farm programs from having any long-term positive effect.
We are close to proposing this type of legislation to Congress. It will be legislation we can proudly support because the objectives come from the agricultural industry itself, from ideas at public sessions held throughout the nation. They come from hundreds of pages of testimony and from scores of private meetings with those who represent every segment of the agricultural industry. Most everyone we spoke with had the same message:
First, this agricultural legislation should be long-term and flexible enough to endure. It should clearly state the direction of farm policy through the end of the 20th century -- not just for another four years.
Second, we need a market-oriented bill that will keep us competitive in the world. Farmers must produce in response to a market price. We want the farmer's income to come from the market, not from the U.S. Treasury.
Third, this agricultural bill should provide consistency among commodity programs and other agricultural policies. This will help ensure that government programs and policies do not work at cross-purposes, as they often do now. For example, does it make sense to spend $1 billion a year to reduce soil erosion when our farm programs encourage sod-busting of erosive land? Or doesit make sense to offer highly subsidized farm credit to attract more resources into agriculture when we have programs to cut back production?
Fourth, the legislation should provide for an orderly transition. It should phase out obsolete and unnecessarily restrictive programs and phase in market-oriented provisions.
The fifth point is equity. At the end of the transition period, producers under the commodity programs will be dealt with in a fair and equitable fashion. All program commodities can expect to move systematically to a market system where supply-and-demand conditions dictate price -- where the supply situation is not distorted by government programs. "All program commodities" would include corn, wheat, cotton, rice, tobacco, peanuts and dairy.
When the members of Congress consider the 1985 farm bill, they will be faced with one of the clearest choices seen since farm legislation was first written more than 50 years ago.
Congress could send agriculture down the same road with more government involvement, more contradictions in policy, more lost markets and more lost jobs. Overall, farmers would continue to become more dependent on the government, perhaps eventually becoming wards of the state. I am convinced that this road would lead agriculture into a fairyland of false market signals, resource dislocation and inefficiency.
Or Congress could send agriculture down a new road where the market, not the government, becomes the guiding force. I am equally convinced that this would lead to maximum opportunity with more jobs, more growth and more prosperity. An important added benefit is that the farm program cost would be controllable and within reason.
It may seem like a simple choice. But for some reason, government has missed some good opportunities to put agriculture on the right road.
Allow me to quote a few timely words from a book on the subject. The author states: "Our agricultural policy should emphasize the further development of both domestic and foreign markets for farm products. We must seek ways and means of improving the operation of free markets." The author also said we should avoid price supports, which tend to "encourage uneconomic production and result in continuing heavy surpluses and subsidies."
Good advice -- but did we listen?
The book I am quoting from is entitled, "Farmers at the Crossroads." The author was Ezra Taft Benson, secretary of agriculture under President Eisenhower. It was published in 1956.
We didn't listen then, but we must listen and act now.