Uncertain Harvest Wheat Farmers Out In Cold With Foley Gone, Growers Have Little Protection Against Upcoming Cuts In Subsidies

Roger Dormaier was pale; Don Phillips a weary giant pressed into shined shoes and a necktie.

Exhausted from a fourth day here of climbing marble steps and hailing taxis, the wheat farmers from west of Spokane carried a briefcase of burdens.

The Republican-controlled Congress was taking aim at farm subsidies to save money, and few politicians seemed willing to sympathize with the pair. The message, they said, was clear.

“They told us tighten your belts and go home,” said Dormaier, obviously bothered by the cold reception he and other members of the Washington Association of Wheat Growers received during their March lobbying campaign.

“We’re paranoid we’re going to have a-nether-cut,” added Phillips, taking a jab at Rep. George Nethercutt, the Spokane attorney who unseated longtime farm advocate Tom Foley last November.

Almost-certain cuts in federal farm subsidies are no laughing matter to Phillips and other Inland Northwest wheat farmers. They’ve built their farms on past assurances that government assistance - paid for by taxpayers - would be there when they need it.

But the political landscape has changed dramatically in recent years, and farmers no longer have the clout to save billions in farm subsidies from the budget cutters.

Suddenly they find that Foley is out, Republicans are in. Entitlements are out, tax cuts are in. And the ‘96 presidential race is in full swing at a time when the farm vote is shrinking and uncertain.

Inland Northwest farmers aren’t sure where they fit in. They voted for Bush in 1992 and helped toss out Foley in ‘94.

Yet in a sign of desperation, they are running for help to a most unlikely source - U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, the Seattle “mom in tennis shoes.”

“There’s a void left by Foley’s departure and a lot of people are scared,” says Murray’s press secretary Rex Carney, who last week shepherded the Democratic senator through her first visit to an Eastern Washington farm since she was elected three years ago. “They’re saying to her (Murray), ‘you’re all we got.”’

Farmers are scrambling for cover because Congress is preparing to rewrite the nation’s farm bill - a sort of pact with farmers. The bill cements the nation’s farm policy for five years and ensures that producers will receive a minimum price in exchange for growing a certain number of acres of key crops, such as wheat, corn and rice.

This year, under the 1990 farm bill, the U.S. Department of Agriculture will write checks for $10 billion to farmers and landlords nationwide. Washington and Idaho wheat farmers could receive $150 million or more.

Proposals in Congress range from a five-year phasing out of price supports to an outright elimination of the USDA.

Sen. Slade Gorton, R-Wash., says such proposals are mere threats with no backing. But there is evidence that for the first time in 20 years Inland Northwest farmers will be left out of the critical debate:

All but 10 of the 49 members on the House Agriculture Committee were elected since 1989 and have never written a farm bill. Rep. Pat Williams of Montana is the lone Northwest member.

Despite naming Kansas Democrat Dan Glickman as Secretary of Agriculture, President Clinton’s staff is hinting that the White House wants farmers weaned from government subsidies.

“The original motivations for farm programs no longer apply,” the White House Council of Economic Advisers sternly wrote Congress in February.

Washington wheat farmers, who under Foley enjoyed unlimited access on Capitol Hill, were turned away last month by freshmen representatives and ushered into hallways to meet with low-level aides.

None of the 21 national farm bill field hearings is scheduled for the Pacific Northwest, despite the fact that Washington is the fifth-largest recipient of federal wheat subsidies; Idaho the third-largest for barley.

The closest hearing is in Stockton, Calif., 1,000 miles to the south where mostly unsubsidized crops are grown.

“The debate has shifted out of the Northwest and gone to the Midwest and beyond,” says Reardan farmer Fred Fleming. “We were going broke slowly before the election; now we have a chance to go broke fast.”

Ironically, Fleming was one of many farmers who crossed over last November to help Nethercutt defeat Foley, a 30-year incumbent who was gaining favor on the House Ag Committee when Nethercutt was still in college.

Election results show Foley took Spokane and Whitman counties, but lost in Lincoln, Adams and several others dominated by agriculture. Term limits, the federal deficit and gun control, all issues that farmers found contentious, also weighed heavily in Foley’s defeat.

Farmers who supported Nethercutt aren’t publicly voicing regrets. But they are clearly shaken by their sudden sense of vulnerability.

Mike Largent, president of the Whitman County Association of Wheat Growers and a Nethercutt supporter, says the political change has been so dramatic that he now wonders if Foley’s high-ranking position unintentionally lulled farmers into a false sense of security. With the speaker of the House as their champion, farmers had little reason to fear cuts in farm subsidies, and less reason to make changes for operating without them.

“There’s no question that Foley spoiled us,” Largent says. “You could walk into his office and things happened. We don’t have that luxury anymore.”

Nethercutt dismisses any notion that he’s not a player in the farm bill debate, or that he is unsympathetic to farmers’ concerns.

As a favorite giant killer in the Republican Party, Nethercutt has been appointed to a powerful steering committee on agriculture that includes House Speaker Newt Gingrich and Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts. In his home district, he’s created an advisory group of farmers that gathers input from 48 producers, far more than the tight circle of farmer friends Foley used to call.

“I’m not here to increase funding,” Nethercutt said last month from his cramped House office, which doesn’t seem much larger than Foley’s old elevator. “I look at this as a course correction to get back from the extremes and try to save some money.”

The correction actually has been going on since the 1930s, when one out of four Americans lived on farms. Millions have migrated over the years to urban centers, where grandchildren of farmers now harvest processed goodies from supermarket shelves.

There are fewer farms today than during the Civil War. About 334,000 farms produce 83 percent of the food, and many are larger than 5,000-acre Spokane International Airport, Census Bureau statistics show.

The shift in where people live has put farmers at a political disadvantage. Congress now reflects an urban and suburban society that paved over the soil and lost its ties to agriculture.

Even President Clinton has joined the farm bash. In his State of the Union address in January, Clinton ridiculed federal research on “plant stress” as if to suggest that scientists were conducting psychoanalysis of a cactus, not breeding winter hardiness into essential food crops.

Half of Washington residents favor cutting farm subsidies, according to a survey of 600 people conducted for the Spokane-based Washington Wheat Commission. They believe subsidies do little more than line farmers’ pockets.

“Agriculture doesn’t have a lot of political capital left,” says William Lesher, the USDA assistant secretary of economics during the Reagan years.

That’s terrifying news for Inland Northwest growers, who are more dependent on the government than their counterparts in many parts of the country.

Growers in the dryland wheat country of Eastern Washington and North Idaho count on federal subsidies for up to one-third of their net income. Nearly 75 percent of the soft white wheat they grow is sold overseas with taxpayer-financed export subsidies.

If they are to regain their political voice, farmers will have to convince urban dwellers that they also benefit from farm programs.

No one knows if the farms would dry up and food production drop without government subsidies. But economists are certain it would trigger a loss in jobs and drop in land values, which could rattle the Spokane economy.

“People could find farming to be a lot less profitable in this area,” said Douglas Young, agricultural economist at Washington State University. “This will cause problems for banks and other businesses.”

The wheat growers association, a 2,800-member group based in Ritzville, says it plans to dispatch more groups to Washington, D.C., this year in an attempt to persuade politicians to leave the nation’s farm policy alone.

With the help of the wheat commission, the growers also have begun assembling a public relations program to target Seattle news media, educate the public and bring pressure on Congress.

“We’re not the only ones being subsidized; so are consumers,” says association vice president Jack Silzel, an Oakesdale, Wash., wheat and hog farmer. “We’re so spoiled in the U.S. that we take it (food) for granted.”

But will that message sell in Congress, where taxpayers are screaming for cuts in the $207 billion federal deficit?

Lesher, the agricultural economist, doesn’t think so. He says farmers are making a mistake to expect Congress to keep the current programs. This is the year, he says, for farmers to seek cuts in environmental restrictions and other regulations as a trade-off for subsidy cuts.

Nethercutt seems to agree.

“They (farmers) may be missing an opportunity,” Nethercutt said as three Washington wheat growers waited to take him to lunch. “If you want to change the system, here’s the chance. Let’s look at it with a fresh mind.”

Graphic: Environmental priorities Graphic: Consumer view on farm subsidies

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