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Farm Bosses Can't Agree on Crisis Fix
By Mark Steil
August 4, 1999
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As Congress debates the farm crisis, the major agriculture organizations are showing a surprising degree of unity on what lawmakers should do. On the first day of Farmfest near Redwood Falls, the presidents of three major farm groups made a rare joint public appearance. While they all said emergency farm aid is a good short term solution, there were deep divisions on the more difficult question of a long term fix.

THE LEADERS OF THE NATIONAL Farmers Organization, the American Farm Bureau and the National Farmers Union are like quarrelsome siblings who must appear together during times of crisis to maintain a semblance of family unity. The current crisis is caused by a year-and-a-half run of near record-low grain and livestock prices which has driven many farmers out of business and threatens thousands more. Congress is considering a short term fix of $7 billion to $11 billion in emergency aid for farmers. The three agricultural leaders agreed that will help keep many farmers in business at least for another year.

Farmers Union President Lee Swenson told a crowd of about 500 people the aid must come quickly.
Swenson: We can't afford to sell corn into the world market at $1.50. We're going broke doing that. If they want to do that in Argentina and Brazil, let them go broke selling a $1.50 corn.
Swenson blames the current problems on the 1996 Freedom to Farm Bill which ended 60 years of government enforced production controls. To guard against overproduction, farmers were required to cut back crop acres in exchange for federal subsidies. After Freedom to Farm passed, farmers still received a federal subsidy, but the requirement to cut production was dropped. So they were free to produce as much as they wanted. Many farmers say that contributed to a price-depressing grain glut.

The Farmers Union and NFO want Congress to change or even revoke Freedom to Farm and pass a new federal program. American Farm Bureau President Dean Kleckner, however, says let the legislation stand. Kleckner says the cause of agriculture's difficulties lies beyond the reach of the U.S. Congress.
Kleckner: We've had three record crops in the world back-to-back. '96, '97 and '98 were the three biggest crops in the history of the recorded world. Previous to '96, we'd never had two successive years of record crops in the world back-to-back. The world simply can't accommodate that much when demand has dropped off like it has.
The demand problems are mainly in Asia where a financial crisis has slashed foreign-grain purchases. Kleckner says as Asian buying picks up, U.S. farm prices will rise. Freedom to Farm opponents say farmers simply can't wait that long. National Farmers Organization President Gene Paul wants a long-term solution linked to the short-term fix Congress is debating. Congress is expected to pass an emergency farm package after returning from its summer break in early September as part of the farm appropriations bill. Paul says that bill should revisit the past to build a solution for the future.
Paul: The government is going to make some payments out to farmers this fall and that's fine. But I think in exchange for those payments, farmers ought to be in a position to agree to next year - in the year 2000 - take 20 or 25% of their feed-grain acres or oil-seed acres and put it in a one-year soil bank.
Gene Paul's plan to idle cropland is vehemently opposed by Congressional Republicans, who see it as a return to failed farm policies of the past.

Reaction to the discussion from farmers in the audience was mixed, tinged by a deep-seated feeling that talk does nothing to slow the economic whirlpool they're sinking in.

Tom Benson of Appleton says he didn't hear anything new.
Benson: I was very disappointed, they came and told us about all the problems that we knew that we had 30 years ago, plus all the new ones that they've put on us in the last 10. We don't need to be told what the problem is. We know what the problem is, we want the solution. And none of those men provided it.
Benson says the three farm groups need to agree on a plan of action independent of what Congress does. He says farmers should consider withholding their grain from market until prices rise. That's been tried in the past but has never worked because its success depends on near total participation. And if it's very difficult to get the three farm-group presidents to agree on anything, it's nearly impossible to get the nations farmers to back a single plan.