RURAL ROUTES/David Frederickson

History repeats and Freedom to Farm runs afoul with farmers

Take a listen in the countryside and you'll hear the same thing I've been hearing: It's time to overhaul the 1996 Farm Bill and restore a safety net that stops the bottom from falling out of farmer's incomes.

Seems like we've heard that somewhere before.

Farm prices are dropping. Weather and crop disease worries combined with those falling market prices are pushing more and more farmers off the land. The price for a bushel of grain or 100 lbs. of milk just doesn't cover the cost of production. Farmers are deciding not to farm.

Seems like we've seen this before.

Thousands of farmers have taken the time and effort to travel to Aberdeen, S.D., and Grand Forks, N.D., to tell U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman that the farm bill needs changing. The nation's farm policy just doesn't work.

Seems like that's nothing new.

Some traditionally conservative farm policy observers and analysts are suggesting that the government ought to consider a program that ties government farm payments to changes in income caused by fluctuating market prices.

Finally, a crack in the wall. But, as Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., warns, don't count on any changes. The Clinton administration may be willing but Congress just isn't up to it. Not yet anyway. The rumblings aren't yet loud enough to be heard inside the marbled halls of the Nation's Capitol.

The willingness of Congress to listen and act favorably for family farmers may improve. The situation is getting worse in farms and on Main Streets across the country. More importantly, it's an election year. And that may be reason enough for Congress to take some positive action.

It won't happen easily. It doesn't matter that back in September 1995, Reps. David Minge, DFL-Montevideo, and Collin Peterson, DFL-Detroit Lakes, introduced the Family Farm Empowerment Act, an alternative farm bill proposal developed by Farmers Union that proposed many of the changes being suggested today.

If the legislation had been approved, loan rates would have risen to 115 percent of a commodity's five-year market average. Marketing loans would have replaced target prices and deficiency payments. And the marketing year would have been extended from nine to 15 months, allowing farmers to hold back at least a portion of their crop rather than being forced to sell the entire crop at harvest.

At the time, the proposal fell on deaf ears. The Republicans who controlled Congress never even gave the bill a hearing. Instead, the majority party, most of the farm press and farm groups across the country touted the market advantages and freedoms of the so-called Freedom to Farm Act provided.

Farmers Union didn't jump on board. The organization believed the legislation crafted by then-Rep. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, was anything but FAIR -- the acronym for the billís official title: the Federal Agricultural Improvement and Reform Act.

Today's market prices for farm commodities prove that history doesn't lie and Farmers Union concerns were well founded. Like everyone, we appreciated and supported the planting flexibility of the new legislation. But the market price always follows the loan rate. It's been that way for decades.

That's exactly what has happened today. Market prices are falling to keep in line with the loan rate. Farmers can't make their operations work on $3 wheat, $1.80 corn and $10 milk. The free market approach doesn't work because farmers and the commodities they produce don't exist in a free market.

Even Roberts, now a U.S. senator and the lawmaker credited with crafting FAIR, appears to be acknowledging that something needs to be done. In a June 11 letter, written to the Rochester Agri-News in support of his House colleague Rep. Gil Gutknecht, R-Rochester, and espousing the Minnesota congressman's support of the House Budget Resolution, Roberts writes: "The House Budget Resolution protects the agriculture budget beyond the expiration of the 1996 farm bill in 2002 -- allowing Congress to take up and pass a market-oriented farm bill that continues to provide a safety net for Americaís farmers and ranchers."

That's a change from someone who advocated eliminating farm programs two years ago so farmers could thrive in the free market and get off the government dole.

The University of Minnesota's own C. Ford Runge, long an advocate of free trade and less government intervention in farm programs, has apparently begun to re-think his position.

"Runge said there needs to be some kind of government safety net for farmers by gearing government payments to fluctuations in income," reported the Associated Press on June 8 after Glickman visited Minnesota and North Dakota.

If Roberts and Runge can change their minds, maybe Congress can, too. We just need tell them loud and clear that freedom to farm only gives family farmers the freedom to go broke. And, if our words don't work, maybe our votes come November will.

David J. Frederickson is president of the Minnesota Farmers Union, 600 County Road D West Suite 14, St. Paul, MN 55112-3521; phone 612/639-1223; e-mail:

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