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The Evolving Farm Bill

EVERY farm bill since 1985 has steered US agriculture away from dependence on federal subsidies. The consensus has grown that government price supports and acreage set-asides are not the way to compete successfully in a rapidly developing international market.

This year's bill, endlessly waylayed and now hotly pursued by the coming planting season, continues that trend. In fact, spurred by the goal of a balanced federal budget in seven years, it promises to accelerate the process, eventually leaving subsidies in the dust.

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The chief means of accomplishing that is some variation of the Republican-backed ''Freedom to Farm Act,'' which has been tirelessly championed by House Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R) of Kansas. The Senate this week passed its version of the legislation. The House will act when it returns to Washington at the end of the month, after which the president ought to sign it. The legislation would substitute the present system of fluctuating price-related subsidies with decreasing fixed payments that will phase out after seven years. Concurrently, farmers get the freedom to plant what they want, unfettered by federal directives.

Failure to enact anything would mean reversion to nearly 50-year-old standing legislation and huge subsidies - which ought to be unthinkable.

Critics charge that the Roberts approach favors big operators who won't be threatened if prices slide from their current highs. But the trend toward larger, more-efficient farms isn't likely to reverse no matter what government does. More bothersome are the glaring exceptions to the subsidy phase-out in the legislation. Sugar, peanuts, and dairy products have so far been saved by their legislative defenders, at a potential cost of billions of dollars to American consumers. Such exceptions have no place in a real reform bill.

The public should also demand some clarification of what will happen when Roberts's seven-year phase-out period is over. Will subsidized farming in fact end? Or will the old political forces just reassert themselves, with government forking over the cash when some farm sector pleads that it's hurting?

Past concerns over maintaining the food supply have largely been shelved by modern farming methods. Public interest in farming these days gravitates toward matters of environmental protection and land conservation.

The logical course of action is to ax the exceptions to subsidy reduction and boost conservation programs. That kind of logic may offend narrow political interests, but it serves the broader interests of both farmers and the general public.

Price supports and acreage set-asides are not the way to compete in the developing global market.

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