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A call to renovate farm programs

The pickings were slim this year at Ryan's pick-your-own blueberries in Frankford, Del. Blistering July weather kept the fruit from growing as plump as usual.

''It's been som hot,'' complains one employee, a large woman wearing a ''Berry Boss'' T-shirt.

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At Adam's produce stand, up the road, local peaches were late this season. Sweet corn looks pre-gnawed. Cantalope quality has been below par.

And Delaware is not alone. This year's mid-summer heat wave is wilting crops all across the country. In the short run, this means slightly higher grocery bills. For the long run, a sharp rise in key crop prices may strengthen the political forces pressing for a renovation of federal farm programs, one of the fastest growing areas of government spending. The cost of federal crop support payments alone is expected to jump 76 percent this year, to $23 billion.

''The pressure to do something about federal farm payments is only going to get greater,'' says John Datt, director of the American Farm Bureau's Washington office.

It's no surprise that this year's harvests of major crops aren't going to set records. PIK, the administration's payment-in-kind crop reduction plan, had already persuaded farmers to let vast tracts lie fallow.

One-third of US wheat fields weren't planted this season. Enough corn fields were idled to cut last year's record crop by 2.2 billion bushels, estimates the Department of Agriculture.

But since July, fields in the Midwest and South have been roasting in high 90 s temperatures. Wheat has been relatively unaffected. Corn and soybeans have shriveled.

Last week, the Department of Agriculture cut its corn crop predictions another billion bushels, because of the weather. Fall's corn harvest is now predicted to be the smallest since the last drought year, 1974. Soybean production is predicted to fall to the lowest level since 1980.

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''And given the continued hot weather since August 1, it's probable'' that even these guesses are too high, says Deputy Secretary of Agriculture Richard Lyng.

Government bins are overflowing with last year's surplus crops, so there aren't going to be any acute shortages. But tighter corn and soybean supplies, say analysts, will inevitably translate into higher food prices.

Chase Econometrics, for instance, estimates that the drop in production of corn - a staple food for cattle - will raise meat prices about 1.5 percent in 1984, after inflation.

Overall, predicts Georgia State economist Donald Ratajczak, food prices will rise 6 percent next year, without taking inflation into account.

Such an increase would be relatively modest, considering food prices have risen more slowly than inflation in seven out of the last eight years. More important, says Mr. Ratajczak, the combination of rising prices and spiraling PIK costs may finally prod Congress and the White House to start cleaning up the ''mess'' of federal farm programs.

''For one thing, obviously there'll be no PIK program for corn next year,'' he says.

Agriculture Secretary John R. Block has announced that PIK - which uses government-held surpluses to pay farmers to cut back planting of wheat, corn, rice, and cotton - will be extended next year for wheat. He hasn't said anything about the other crops.

Critics claim PIK might boost the cost of federal budgets in future years by up to $12 billion. Supporters say the program saves Uncle Sam money.

''Secretary Block is getting a barrage of criticism right now about PIK,'' says Michael Hall, lobbyist for the National Corn Growers Association. ''But without it, how much more would other farm programs have cost?''

Those other programs are already quite expensive. The cost of federal crop price supports, for instance, has leapt from $4 billion in 1981 to more than $20 billion today.

And price supports, politically, are a tough horse to lasso. Recently the Senate dropped a bill that would have scaled back already-scheduled increases in the target price of wheat, corn, cotton, and other commodities. Robert Mullins, legislative director at the National Farmers Union, says the price support freeze is itself in political cold storage.

But the pressure to cap federal farm spending is slowly, inevitably increasing, say other analysts, as the cost of the programs rise and a political backlash develops.

This fall, says Mr. Datt of the Farm Bureau, the always-incendiary subject of dairy price supports will be debated. And in 1984, he says, Congress must begin work on replacing the Agriculture and Food Act of 1981, a massive law that authorizes almost all federal farm programs. It expires in 1985.

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