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Farm Bill Preview

LAST week's conference on rural development and farm policy in Ames, Iowa, was a mild scenesetter for what promises to be an intense debate in Washington over the 1995 farm bill. The few headlines that emerged from Ames dealt with President Clinton's pledge to avoid cutting farm subsidies too deeply; the larger story is the sprouting of ideas about how that cutting should be done.

One such idea comes from a group of Iowa farmers who have concluded that the deficiency payment program, under which the government makes up the difference between a ''target price'' for a crop and its market price, ought to be junked.

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Their ''Iowa Plan'' emphasizes ''revenue assurance.'' Under this approach, government payment would kick in only when farmers' incomes dip below a ''normal'' level determined by average revenues over five or more years. Individual producers would be free to plant as they see fit, without the constraint of tying their crop decisions to government subsidies for particular commodities.

Proponents say the plan would save the government money while providing farmers a safety net that would come into play only when it was truly needed.

Another idea comes from the American Farmland Trust, a Washington-based group that tries to protect prime agricultural acreage. It, too, would get rid of the system linking government payments to the amount of acreage devoted to a particular commodity. The trust recommends, instead, a ''Whole Farm Base'' plan to give farmers more flexibility and eliminate much red tape.

It would also cap overall spending on price and income supports and strengthen the land conservation aspects of the federal program, making achievement of conservation goals a key factor in determining who gets help from Washington.

Both of these approaches -- and they're largely complementary -- deserve a sympathetic examination in Washington. And there are many other ideas that are competing for attention, too.

Government will remain a partner in assuring that food supplies are stable and that farming continues to be a viable career for Americans. But in the future, we hope, its partnership will be less bureaucratic and more creative.

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