A future of uncertainty

by Rep. Tim Johnson
D-South Dakota

The over-all direction of the 1996 farm bill, commonly known as "Freedom to Farm," unfortunately serves the needs of international grain traders far better than it does this country's family farmers.

Agricultural economists from prominent Midwestern universities are already warning that this farm bill will likely lead to lower commodity prices, lower land values and, in turn, greater financial problems for local governments throughout the northern plains. The payments made in the first few years of this farm bill will look pretty good to a lot of folks, especially while grain prices are relatively high. But, even as a "golden parachute" designed to ease family producers out of agriculture over seven years, this is an inefficient approach.

Under this bill, the largest 2% of farms in the nation will receive 22% of the farm program payments while not even being required to plant anything. Does this make good, common sense? Is such an uneven distribution reasonable or fair? Should producers really receive payments when they don't plant anything?

Most farmers want to prosper at the market, not at the mailbox - especially when the mailbox is going to be pulled out of the ground within seven years. Rather than receiving payments for things they don't plant, most folks would prefer a system that helps secure decent, stable prices for things they do plant.

There's no doubt the existing farm program is too bureaucratic, complicated and unresponsive to market conditions. Our farmers want and deserve greater flexibility, simplicity, and common sense. However, these goals could be met with an approach far more effective and efficient than the one advocated in "Freedom to Farm."

We should be working to create a farm policy that meets these goals, provides long-term marketing tools, and takes strong steps to ensuring our producers receive decent - not lower - prices for their products. In recent months, I have worked with several of my colleagues, leading farm organizations and individual farmers to push for just such a policy - an alternative "marketing loan" approach which would provide simplicity and common sense while preserving a safety net against the inevitable time of plunging grain prices.

In my view, it's a serious mistake to not only abolish all efforts at improving market prices, but also to eliminate the Farmer Owned Reserve (FOR) and emergency livestock feed assistance programs. Moreover, the dairy component of this farm bill phases out price supports over four years and preserves a market order system that penalizes dairy farmers in the Midwestern part of our country by at least $3 per cwt.

It's hard to justify these changes unless you own a large corporate farm. Perhaps that's why those who are most loudly applauding this new farm bill seem to be those who oppose any public-private partnership designed to stabilize and improve agricultural product prices.

While I have serious reservations about this bill, it does contain a few good provisions. The bill provides slightly more flexibility and simplicity. It also includes a Fund for Rural America (albeit at a much lower funding level than requested by President Clinton) and makes progress on some nutrition and conservation issues. And, as a member of the farm bill conference committee, I was successful in passing the "Johnson amendment" which instills greater common sense in the way wetland rules are administered.

These additions make the bill slightly more acceptable, but they aren't enough to ensure decent, stable prices or a future for our family farmers. And, I believe that's what most producers across this country want. While this farm bill will result in substantial payments being made in farm country just prior to the 1996 elections, its long-term negative impact will be hard-felt long after this year's polling booths have closed.

America is the best and most cheaply fed country in the world. Why punish our family farmers who, generation after generation, have provided consumers with the highest quality products at reasonable, fair prices?

Rest assured, producers will not be alone in feeling the negative impact of this bill. Consumers will no longer be able to go to the supermarket and anticipate the price of a quart of milk or a bag of flour. Without any type of mechanism to ensure decent, stable prices, the cost of basic necessities in the supermarket will now be as susceptible to the whims of the weather as the farmers in the field.

I have proudly served on the House Agriculture Committee throughout my entire tenure in the U.S. House of Representatives, working diligently to create policies that provide our family farmers with decent, stable prices and the tools to successfully compete in a changing global agricultural economy.

This new approach threatens much of that work, even going so far as to endanger the very existence of our family farmers and, consequently, the economic stability of Main streets across this country. As most of us from farm country know, when the farmers in the field do well, the businesses in town also reap the rewards of their success. The same parallel effect is true in bad times.

Agriculture plays a vital role in our country's economy and in the daily lives of people from one end of the country to the other. Rather than slamming the door on a program that has had it's fair share of success, shouldn't we look at ways to make it more effective and efficient without completely dismantling it?

Though I anticipate an uphill battle in taking this approach, I still remain hopeful that next year a strong bi-partisan effort will be initiated to modify this legislation in a way that will help ensure the future of our family farms and create a strong foundation for decent, long-term stable farm prices.

Tim Johnson is member of Congress at large from South Dakota and was a member of the conference committee on the farm bill. He is a Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate.