The newest foundling in the U.S. farm policy barn is called Zero-92, but Sen. John Melcher (D-Mont.), a veterinarian, has a sharp needle poised, ready to put the critter to eternal sleep.
Zero-92 is congressional jargon for a program passed quickly by the House before its August recess, authorizing certain farmers to plant none -- zero -- of their land and still get 92 percent of the federal subsidy they otherwise would have received.
In other words, much like the payment-in-kind (PIK) program run by the government in 1983, farmers would be paid to do nothing. Put a different way, a farmer entitled to a $2.12 subsidy for growing a bushel of wheat in 1988 could instead grow nothing and yet qualify for $1.95.
"I've told everybody who will listen that this concept will not pass the Senate, come hell or high water," Melcher said. "I will do all in my power to prevent its passage . . . . It is akin to that fiasco of 1983. I didn't like it then, and I don't like it now . . . . I'm ashamed it's even being suggested again."
The measure zipped through the House without opposition, largely because its main champions, Reps. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.) and Glenn English (D-Okla.), billed it as a cost-saving step that could help reduce crop surpluses. As adopted, the bill would apply to wheat, corn and other feed grains.
Glickman said the bill was rushed because many wheat farmers would be planting winter crops in September and needed to know of any changes in federal policy.
The Agriculture Department, which has not taken a position on the measure, has estimated that it could save as much as $500 million by avoiding storage costs and loan forfeiture costs that would arise if farmers planted.
Richard W. Goldberg, acting undersecretary for international and commodity affairs, conceded that the administration has had some philosophical problems with the Zero-92 concept, but he agreed that it could save money and curtail more production if adopted.
"It's hard to get a handle on how many acres might be enrolled if this became law, but it will save," Goldberg said. "I don't know how it will emerge, but there is considerable opposition to this in the Senate and the fertilizer people are working to defeat it because they feel it would hurt their business."
The Zero-92 plan is an extension of a 50-92 voluntary program authorized by the 1985 farm bill as another effort to cut federal costs and reduce surpluses. That plan meant that a farmer could get 92 percent of his subsidy while planting 50 percent of eligible land.
Goldberg did not have final figures, but his department estimated in April that 1.3 million to 3.4 million acres would be enrolled in the 50-92 scheme this year. Recent estimates, assuming approval of Zero-92, suggest that as many as 7 million acres might be left unplanted.
Melcher, chairman of the Senate Agriculture subcommittee that deals with commodity policy, said he will have none of it. Instead, he said, he will push Congress and the administration to more actively send surplus U.S. food to the needy here and abroad.
"Zero-92 is worse than welfare. Welfare is based on helping someone who can't help himself. It is terrible policy to pay farmers en masse not to produce. It is an admission that you don't know what to do with the bountiful supplies of food we have," he said.
"It is much better policy to produce food and make sure it is available for the people in this country first and then for people around the world who need food. That this administration has not placed more of our surpluses with those who need the food is a fault, a terrible fault of our capabilities," he added.