Rising world demand for basic commodities such as wheat is likely to convert U.S. farming into a market-driven industry that’s far less dependent on government subsidies, a top agriculture official said here Thursday.
“We’ve got to change our mentality from one dealing in surpluses and controling production to one dealing with market opportunities and possible shortages,” said Eugene Moos, U.S. Department of Agriculture undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services. “This is real: we need to adjust our thinking.”
Speaking before nearly 100 farmers and curious residents in this community 35 miles west of Spokane, Moos urged farmers to boost production to meet growing demand for nearly every commodity. Bigger crops will tap the recent upsurge in prices, raising farm incomes and benefiting rural America, he said.
“Every basic crop today is in short supply,” said Moos, a native of nearby, Edwall, Wash., who was appointed in 1994 by President Clinton. “We couldn’t afford a short crop this year.”
The Clinton administration opposes Republican-backed efforts to drastically cut federal spending on price-support subsidies and other agriculture programs.
But in a later interview, Moos said the administration is not sounding alarms about food shortages and food price inflation to counter budget-cutting proposals. They simply want farmers to take advantage of dramatic gains in world consumption.
Moos noted that the nation’s current supply of corn, if not replenished, would only last 18 to 30 days at current consumption rates. Moos said farmers could quickly put another 10 million acres back into production. In addition, a 137 million-bushel reserve of government-owned grain may be tapped this year to supply overseas food-aid programs.
One result of the current farm program has been to discourage farmers from planting as much as they would otherwise.
Congress is likely to let farmers escape long-term acreage idling programs in the coming year, Moos predicted. The Conservation Reserve Program alone has idled 35 million acres nationally; 1 million acres in Washington.
Moos took a shot at Republican proposals to reduce or eliminate price- supports in seven years.
Just because farmers are enjoying one good year does not mean Congress should abandon price-support programs that provide a “safety net” for farmers, he said.
A more modest Democratic plan would shave about $4 billion from agriculture programs, but keep in tact the subsidy payments farmers receive when market prices turn south.
“If we’re going to call on American farmers to grow for the huge demand, then we need to provide a safety net,” he said.
Local farmers, however, still weren’t satisfied. One suggested that export subsidies continue even if wheat reaches $6 a bushel.
Another said farmers should not be required to pay back advanced price-support subsidies that they received before this year’s run-up in prices.
Farmers currently can receive $4.50 per bushel or more for soft white wheat, the predominant variety grown in the Inland Northwest. Because that exceeds the government’s target price, some farmers may have to return subsidy payments.
The price of wheat was about $1 per bushel less in 1994.