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US farm troubles: Congress talks, but help unlikely

Look for a whole lot of talk in Congress about bankruptcies cutting a massive swath through the farm belt -- but very little action.

Agricultural experts say dramatic gestures, such as the proposed Farm Crisis Act of 1982 being promoted by US Reps. Kent Hance (D) of Texas and Thomas A. Daschle (D) of South Dakota, are more a matter of politicians preening for fall elections than serious attempts at new legislation.

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Even if the House does pass emergency legislation, congressional staffers insist the Republican-ruled Senate is in no mood to approve additional spending on farm programs. And, despite clear signs of hard times for farmers, the White House says it has solid farming support for its view that agriculture has no claim to special consideration.

Congressmen generally agree that the only farm legislation likely to survive this session is an administration bill to reduce dairy supports. Yet the House seems determined to draft and discuss a variety of new bills.

To kick off discussion, the House Agriculture Committee began field hearings on farm problems with a May 17 session in Springfield, Ill. The next stops will be Rapid City, S.D., on May 24 and Spokane, Wash., on June 14. Capitol Hill hearings begin May 25 on proposals in the Farm Crisis Act to idle more cropland, increase farm loan programs, and spend an extra $1 billion to promote farm exports.

One reason for interest in emergency legislation is ''the view that problems are deepening out in the countryside, that 5 to 10 percent of farmers are in deep financial trouble,'' says Gene Moos, senior staff analyst for the House Agriculture Committee. And, the reasoning continues, ''unless something is done to turn around the price outlook for the '82 crop through some form of government production adjustment or some other action, then the 5 to 10 percent in trouble could double or triple -- and we could have a real farm crisis in this country,'' he says.

But Mr. Moos sees a number of reasons why even House Democrats may not rally to the Farm Crisis Act. One is that ''there are a lot of other sectors of our economy that are in trouble right now, the housing sector, the savings and loans , the automobile sector,'' he says.

Also, while certain groups of farmers want a return to more direct government intervention, ''we have been through that experience,'' Moos says. ''And farmers in my judgment would have some difficulty on a national basis in giving more authority to the government to determine, in effect, what crops can be sold and under what terms.''

US Department of Agriculture Assistant Secretary for Economics William Lesher is convinced that the administration can count on farm support for sticking with the current four-year 1981 Farm Bill. ''Getting the interest rates down is the best thing that we can do for farmers,'' he says.

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Farmers who need to borrow heavily to carry on operations from one year's harvest to the next, Mr. Lesher says, understand the need to cut federal spending and cut the federal deficit in order to reduce interest rates.

Lesher recognizes that farmers are hurting as a result of a variety of US and world conditions depressing farm income. He says agricultural price supports this fiscal year are approaching $11 billion -- probably 21/2 times the outlay of fiscal 1981. ''So we are not saying that farm prices are high enough. What we do say is that we have farm legislation in place that already is spending a lot of money to keep a floor under prices for farmers,'' he says.

Gene Hemphill, assistant to Secretary of Agriculture John Block, foresees farm bankruptcies increasing in 1982. ''But it is not our current actions causing these casualties,'' he explains. ''And if we rushed out and spent a lot more government money to create some type of artificial stability out there, we could create a lot more casualties for the future.''

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