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Subsidies Help Farmers Compete

Sun., July 30, 1995

The first thing to keep in mind, as Congress rewrites the farm program, is that it’s playing with ideological matches outside one whopper of a gas tank. The second thing to keep in mind is that politicians have harassed agriculture for 60 years but haven’t blown it up yet. (Before they got involved, you might recall what private banks were doing to family farms: plowing them under.)

Agriculture fuels the Inland Northwest’s economy. And in a national economy weakened by imports, agricultural exports are a crucial plus.

So there’s a lot at stake as Congress assembles a new farm bill. There’s also a likelihood of change. Some in the new Republican majority are ideologically opposed to subsidies. Urban Democrats also would like to kill farm subsidies, the better to subsidize the unproductive urban poor. But there’s a potent moderating force: Many in the new Republican majority won their seats on the strength of farm-country votes.

With reason. Farmers still need aid, but many also want change.

Federal subsidies come with 60 years of accumulated federal regulations. The rules dictate what, how much, where and how farmers plant.

Rules also invite questionable manipulations, like the double-dipping for farm wives and the export of subsidy checks to absentee owners and heirs. In a better climate farmers could innovate for market opportunities, instead.

But the leveling effect of rules fosters a bulk-commodity shipping and marketing system that leaves farmers nowhere to go even if they do want to change. Government cripples farmers further by blocking exports to nations whose leaders are out of political favor in Washington, D.C.

Finally, farmers live in fear that some misstep in paperwork, or bad luck with erosion, will prompt an arbitrary government enforcer to slap ruinous penalties on what, for many, is a marginal operation.

So farmers may applaud if Congress streamlines the rules and programs tied to their aid. Many also understand the need to shrink subsidies - carefully - to balance the federal budget.

But whether any of us like it or not, farmers must compete in a global market infested with foreign subsidies. Only when competing nations end their subsidies, can we end ours.

Before then, if the ideologues kill subsidies they’d cause economic and social havoc. Struggling family farms, which dominate this region, would go out of business. Mass-production corporate monoculture would prey upon the land.

Congress should streamline the farm program, not end it. American farmland, as well as the culture it supports, is a priceless resource.

, DataTimes The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = John Webster/For the editorial board

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