Export success reaps tares, too, for farmers
Like an offset disk, a piece of farm equipment that cuts a farmer's field in opposite directions, America's sharply rising agricultural exports have cut two ways.
Farm exports leaped from $8 billion in 1972 to $22 billion in 1974. They hit
One result of this success is that the farm sector is an increasingly important part of the American economy. So farmers feel they deserve major consideration in government policymaking. To leave out the farm voice, they argue, risks killing the goose that lays larger golden eggs every year.
But -- as shown most dramatically by President Carter's 11-month-old embargo on new grain sales to the Soviet Union -- there's another side to the story.
American farmers complain bitterly that the reward for their successful domination of the world agricultural trade has been added government interference.
As more countries join Western Europe, Japan, the Soviet Union, and China as heavy importers of US farm products, these products have become what one Carter administration official calls "a legitimate tool of international diplomacy."
Increasingly, inflation-squeezed Us consumers and urban-based politicians want to know why the United States can't use this tool to exert the same leverage the Arabs exert with their oil.
Farmers have short, sharp answers for such suggestions.
First they offer the moral argument that food should never be used as a weapon.
Then comes the practical explanation. OPEC can leave its oil in the ground to be pumped another year. Farmers do not have this option. Whatever isn't grown one year just isn't grown. Whatever has been grown already represents major production costs. And storage only adds to these costs.
Finally, the farmers point out they have spent years carefully nurturing an international market for their farm products. They have statistics to show how this new export industry has benefited the entire US economy. They insist that if this market is to continue growing, then the United States must be a dependable supplier from year to year.
Government interference, the farmers say, is seriously jeopardizing the ability of US agriculture to deliver the goods at home and abroad cheaply and efficiently.
Part of the farmer's concern comes from what he sees as a long-term pattern of minor but cumulative assaults on farm productivity.
Farmers resented this year's cutback in government spending on agricultural research. They wondered how long they could survive under the latest barrage of restrictive regulations coming from such federal offices as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Accordinglyu they came out strongly in support of Ronald Reagan in the presidential elections hoping to reverse these trends. Whether President Reagan will stand by candidate Reagan's opposition to the grain embargo remains to be seen.
What cyrstallized farmers' doubts about government policy was President Carter's January 1980 embargo on new grain sales to the Soviets.
After an early show of patriotism, farmers turned sharply against the embargo , as have their senators and representatives.
William Mullins, the National Corn Growers Association's vice-president for legislative affairs, summed up farm feeling in a letter to the Houst Agriculture Committee in Washington. The embargo, he wrote, has "resulted in the sharp decline in corn prices; produced the fundamental factor that requires the forecast of a substantial decline in net farm income in 1980; caused a sharp downward revision in net earnings to the US agriculture economy from lost corn and grain exports; eroded the reputation of the United States as a reliable supplier of corn to all foreign markets; and produced a set of circumstances that generated higher prices for corn and grain exports from other exporting countries to meet the USSR shortfall in grain import requirements."
Farmers feel the government should have learned from the Nixon soybean embargo in 1973 and from the two Ford grain embargoes in 1974 and '75 that such actions hurt the American economy -- driving away overseas customers who simply shop elsewhere (primarily in Argentina and Brazil).
Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland dismissed calls for lifting the grain embargo as "98 percent politics." He has said that the embargo is an appropriate response to Soviet aggression in Afghanistan and that ending it "would tell the Russians all they've got to do is put up a big fuss and the United States will turn tail and run."
But at Kansas Farm Bureau headquarters in Manhattan, there's a different perspective. The embargo is opposed partly because, arbitrarily and overnight, it cut the value of all the grain stored by the dues-paying members of the popular Farm Bureau organization.
There's also a very strong feeling, however, that everyone loses when government starts interfering with the delicate machinery of agriculture. "Particularly with an embargo, marketing is disrupted, and that upsets everything," said Martin Toll, a Kansas wheat farmer, adding, "When you foul up grain you disrupt cattle and hogs and everything else on down the line."
The Kansas Farm Bureau president, John Junior Armstrong, who raises corn and wheat on his 2,800 acres here in Manhattan, explains that any embargo is bound to meet opposition, because "farmers like to farm at full throttle. They deplore the work slowdowns and stoppages and strikes we see in labor."
Ron Gaches, a lobbyist for the Kansas Farm Bureau, added that the main effect of the embargo has not been to hurt the Soviets. Instead, he said, it has hurt the American economy by "disrupting sales to the Soviet Union, which potentially was such a very large and dependable customer."