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Down on the farm, reforms failing

American farmers still lean hard on government aid, and instead of rising exports they see falling crop prices.

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The United States' bold program to wean farmers from subsidies and make them more globally competitive appears to be failing.

Instead of becoming more competitive, America's farmers remain dependent on government handouts. Crop prices have fallen so low that many producers admit they'd be out of business without them. As a result, the US continues to lose its position as the world's chief food exporter, and its hopes to get government out of farming seem dashed.

Finding a solution presents knotty challenges, as free-market economics bumps up against the political importance of farmers.

"There's no farmer who isn't seeding for the government programs," says Gary Beckedahl, a farmer in Sherwood, N.D., who has downsized after a string of bad years.

"The government is not going to be out of farming," adds Bruce Lewallen, president of the US Durum Growers Association and a farmer here in Bisbee, N.D. "If it happens, there will not be a farmer left from North Dakota down to Texas."

Wheat offers the clearest example of how US policies are failing. Farmers plan to seed fewer acres of wheat than at any time since 1973, according to a recent survey by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA). Back then, American agriculture stood on the verge of a long boom, fueled by the surprise wheat purchases by the Soviet Union. Today, even with world wheat stocks declining, farmers here are in no mood to gamble that prices will rebound.

North Dakota, in particular, is cutting back its durum acreage (the specialty wheat used to make pasta) despite its premium price. Although abnormally high rainfall has played a role, ruining several durum crops and increasing the risks of disease, government programs are also pushing farmers to move out of durum.

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