The Farm Bill that has come out of conference is better than either bill that went in. The House and Senate should gratefully approve it -- both were rescued from some bad ideas -- and the president should sign it. The support programs are likely to cost more than anyone would like -- perhaps $52 billion over three years -- and the bill contains some missed opportunities. More should have been done to steer funds to the neediest farmers, instead of continuing to give the most money to the largest producers.

But the bill would slowly ratchet down support levels in hard times, something that had to be done and not everyone thought Congress could bring itself to do. To drop the supports too quickly would be to risk wider failures. Then it would really cost to bail out the farm credit system.

As it came out of conference, the bill would:

1.Steadily lower the loan rates or prices the government will pay as buyer of last resort for wheat, corn, rice and cotton. So long as the legislated prices for these staples stay higher than market prices, farmers will grow for the government instead of for export. This is arguably the most important structural reform in the bill.

2.Continue acreage controls to contain production, both to limit government liability under the support programs and to firm up prices. The bill would also limit production through a sensible new conservation program, which the conferees thinned out somewhat to save money. Under it, farmers would both be paid to idle erodible land and penalized if they plowed it up.

3.Lower dairy price supports (though not until 1987) to discourage excess production. The House bill would shamelessly have raised supports instead. Eventually under the conferees' bill, price would reflect production. If prices in one year brought forth too much milk, they would be automatically reduced in the next year. That is as it should be. The dairy reforms are the second most important in the bill.

5.Preserve sugar price supports and require that imports be limited so that all U.S. sugar is bought up first. That is bad policy. The conferees also declined to phase out honey price supports, but did agree to lower them. And they tidied up the bill immeasurably when they knocked out the special program for sunflower growers (and soybean producers) that Majority Leader Bob Dole had inserted in the Senate version to help buy the votes for passage.

6.Preserve for two years the target prices on which income supplements for grain and cotton farmers are based, and only then slowly work them down. This is the big money item in the bill. The administration wanted these supports to come down faster; the Democrats argued that they should not come down at all. The schedule in the bill is probably still too generous, and an effort should have been made to limit these payments to the needy. But the bill's virtues outweigh its flaws.

In a difficult area and the worst of years, Congress has finally acquitted itself rather well.