Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng is holding his nose, but he's about to spend $2 million or more to conduct a poll that he doesn't like, doesn't intend to abide by and is trying mightily to influence.
The Agriculture Department, under orders from last year's farm bill, will begin polling wheat farmers next week to find out whether they want the government to set up mandatory production controls to increase prices.
Most people thought the mandatory control issue, one of the thorniest in last year's farm bill debate, had been buried. Instead, it has been resuscitated and sets the stage for another round of political wrangling over farm policy.
Although the poll results will not be binding, Lyng has stirred controversy by urging farmers to vote against production controls and by warning that he has no intention of establishing controls even if farmers want them.
"There are so many sound reasons why this idea should be rejected that I hardly know where to begin," he said recently. "Yet, in spite of its dangers, many people -- especially those who have been struggling the past couple of years -- might well be fooled by the short-term lure of what may sound like higher wheat prices.
"Even though the outcome of the poll is nonbinding, a majority vote in favor of mandatory controls could eventually tip the scales in Congress, or at least cause a return to last year's debate," Lyng added.
Actually, the debate has begun already. Cy Carpenter, president of the National Farmers Union, has denounced Lyng's attempts to influence the poll results and has called on Congress to investigate a "clear violation of the intent of Congress . . . to conduct a fair and impartial poll."
And Sen. Edward Zorinsky (D-Neb.), who came up with the poll idea after his plan for a binding vote on wheat production controls was scuttled by Congress, has urged Lyng -- to no avail -- to provide return postage on the ballots to encourage farmers to respond.
Zorinsky also said he was "disturbed" that even though there are only 1 million wheat growers nationwide, the USDA will distribute about 1 million more ballots to "hobby" farmers who grow less than 40 acres of wheat, and to property owners on whose land wheat is grown.
Wheat growers, however, appear divided on the mandatory control question, even though their industry is under the stress of large surpluses, tumbling prices and declining export markets.
The National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) is neutral on the poll, but various state affiliates have taken opposing positions. Nebraskans, for example, favor the controls; Washington and Oregon growers are being urged to oppose them. Farmers Union favors the controls; the American Farm Bureau Federation is against them.
But because the poll will not be binding, NAWG executive vice president Carl Schwensen said "there is a question whether farmers will vote at all. I think the return will be small."
Although the current farm program assures growers more in supports and subsidies ($4.38 per bushel) than they might get under a mandatory control scheme ($4.15), Schwensen said the building frustration among farmers could generate more support for the controls.
"We've made the transition into the new farm bill, which was presented as a package of policy changes that would make us more competitive," he said. "But we are still stalled and grain is not moving. There is a perception among farmers that prices are down and that the changes are not working."
That perception, in combination with election-year politicking, is almost certain to keep the rhetorical pot stirred over federal farm policy. Democrats and allied farm organizations have been working for weeks to prepare new "save-the-family-farm" legislation that is expected to be introduced soon.