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Reagan agricultural pledges: Tough row to hoe

The new Reagan team at the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) already is learning that campaign promises to redesign the department "to serve the farmer" will have to be adjusted to the realities of foreign policy and national economic goals.

This has been made clear directly by the conservative Heritage Foundation and indirectly by the Soviet Union.

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The foundation, in a report listing agricultural policy options for the new administration, recommends rejecting farm-bloc pressures to turn the USDA into a smaller department just serving farmers. If the various programs dealing with nonfarm rural problems and the department, the report notes, "departmental clientele would total 1 or 2 percent of the population." This could result in the USDA losing both its Cabinet status and its political effectiveness, the report says.

Meanwhile, the Soviets last week confirmed that meat production in the USSR totaled 15.1 million tons in 1980, well below target and down from 15.5 million tons in 1978 and 1979. This is seen as largely caused by the year-old US embargo on grain sales to the Soviets.

US and foreign agricultural economists cite the Soviet figures as evidence of how closely US agriculture has become linked to international economic and political developments.

President Reagan's secretary of agriculture, John Block, has advocated an end to the Soviet grain embargo -- as did Mr. Reagan until early January, when he commented that the embargo requires "a great deal of study." Now Mr. Block, too, is being forced to consider the foreign policy implications of the embargo and how various farm policy changes might affect broad trade, energy, inflation, consumer price, unemployment, and other administration policies.

A Cabinet meeting on the embargo issue is scheduled for next week.

The Heritage Foundation report recommends that the Carter administration's "course toward a market-oriented agriculture be continued and that any proposals which would push us deeper into government programs should be rejected."

The report advocates cutting back sharply on food stamps and other "income transfer" devices. But it also calls for cutbacks in payments to farmers.

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Pointing out that "every seantor has a farm constituency," the report warns that even in a Republican Senate will fight cutbacks in farm support programs. It notes that these programs grew under Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, and Ford as well as under the Democrats.

A determined USDA, however, can cut its budget by 15 percent and can use "an infusion of supply-side incentive economics" to help agriculture at home and abroad, according to the Heritage Foundation.

Farmers will be disappointed if the new administration takes the foundation's advice to continue past programs. But Congress is said to be pleased by the conclusion that "the Agriculture Act of 1981 will be a modification of the 1977 act, rather than reflect a new approach."

In his first press conference Jan. 28, Secretary Block confirmed that no major changes are planned. But he warned that "the most costly farm programs will be receivin g the greatest amount of scrutiny."

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