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Special Interests Seen Favoring Status Quo on Farm Policy

March 12, 1990

WASHINGTON (AP) _ When she introduced Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter at a conference last week, analyst Susan Sechler said a lot of the current farm bill debate is being generated by special interests who want to keep the pie sliced pretty much as it is.

″Within the farm policy fraternity, it seems, the prevailing mood is defensive,″ Sechler said. ″In the aftermath of the (farm financial) disaster of the mid-1980s, and in the midst of a fragile, uneven recovery, the farm policy club is preoccupied with three things.″

She said these are:

-A desire to keep government deeply involved in agriculture, including large annual costs of operating commodity programs.

-Tinkering with programs in the name of ″flexibility″ so that a few million acres can shift from one crop to another.

-Efforts to ″deny a seat at the farm poker table to prospective new players, notably consumer and environmental interests.″

Sechler is director of rural economic policy for the Aspen Institute, a private research organization based here. During the Carter administration, she was a senior policy analyst at the Agriculture Department.

Congress has been holding hearings on a 1990 farm bill to replace the Food Security Act of 1985. Just about everyone, including the Bush administration, says the current law should be the basis of the 1990 bill and that changes should be made with tender loving care.

A mainstay of the administration’s proposals is flexibility to allow farmers more freedom to plant what they choose, rather than be forced into planting the same ″program″ crop year after year to protect their federal benefits.

″This term (flexibility) is consistent with the rich tradition of agricultural policy doublespeak, a tradition which in 1985 spawned a market- oriented farm bill that since has cost taxpayers $90 billion,″ Sechler said.

Yeutter told his audience at the food policy conference, sponsored by Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, that consumers need to understand what is at stake in the flexibility issue on Capitol Hill.

″You ought to care, because it’s going to have an impact on the cost of food, the efficiency with which we run our food production system in the United States,″ he said.

Flexibility in crop plantings and rotation also would have some effect on the level of agricultural ″inputs″ such as fertilizer and pesticide used to grow food, Yeutter said. Rigid rules built into current programs ″often demand that farmers use″ chemicals to get maximum production.

Yeutter also defended the administration’s environmental proposals for conservation, surface and ground water quality, and the protection of wetlands.

Some environmentalists say the administration should go even further than what it has proposed for the 1990 farm bill, ″but the fact is we’ve gone a lot farther than anybody’s ever gone before in any administration,′ ′ he said.

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WASHINGTON (AP) - Land under irrigation may increase to record levels in the 1990s if the government continues to throttle back on acreage reduction programs, according to an Agriculture Department analysis.

The department’s Economic Research Service said its study shows a linkage between acreage reduction program (ARP) levels and the area under irrigation.

From 1949 to 1978, the area irrigated in the United States doubled, reaching 50.3 million acres. But the agricultural census of 1982 showed a decline of 1.3 million acres, and the 1987 census showed a further drop of 2.6 million.

Agency researchers said irrigation area dropped as the ARPs were increased. This represents land farmers must take from production in order to qualify for price support benefits.

″Since 1987, a substantial reduction in commodity stocks has allowed USDA to ease (ARP) requirements,″ the agency said in the March issue of Agricultural Outlook magazine. ″In 1989, area diverted under annual programs was about half of the 1987 acreage reductions.″

Preliminary estimates indicate that more farmland was irrigated in 1989 than in any year since 1981.

″Beyond 1990, irrigation could rise 3-4 million acres above current levels if the area idled under the annual programs is brought back into production,″ the report said.

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WASHINGTON (AP) - Imports of agricultural products rose to a record $21.5 billion last year, with most of the items competitive with domestic products, according to the Agriculture Department.

Total value of competitive items imported in the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30 was more than $15.24 billion, lead by $3.84 billion worth of fruits, nuts and vegetables. Beef and pork imports were next at $2.3 billion.

Non-competitive imports were valued at $6.27 billion, including $2.47 billion worth of coffee and $1.05 billion worth of rubber and gums, said the department’s Foreign Agricultural Service.