For Tom Pottratz and thousands of Inland Northwest farmers, next week marks the end of 60 years of government interference and the beginning of seven years of freedom.
No longer will the Latah farmer face restrictions on how much wheat he can plant on his 1,800-acre farm.
No longer must he endure long afternoons poring over government paperwork when he could be on the phone marketing his crop.
No longer will he fear U.S. Department of Agriculture agents crawling over his land to check for soil erosion.
“We’ve had some stuff shoved down our throats in the past,” Pottratz said. “But the government is moving in the right direction to free us to see how we’ll do in the free market.”
Barring the arrival of dry weather that’s good for finishing late seeding of his spring crops, Pottratz is scheduled to be first in Spokane County Monday morning to sign up for a new market-driven, seven-year contract with taxpayers.
He’ll be followed by up to 50,000 other farmers and landlords in Washington and Idaho who will pass through county Farm Service Agency offices in the next eight weeks to sign contracts.
FSA officials expect 93 percent participation - roughly 46,000 farmers and landlords - in the two states to sign up.
Approved earlier this year by Congress and President Clinton, the Federal Agriculture Improvement Reform Act replaces 60 years of pricesupports and other complex entitlements with a flat, but declining payment that will end in 2002. It mostly affects farmers growing grains such as wheat and corn, not those who grow fruits and vegetables.
The contract is a risky arrangement for farmers and consumers alike. With no government control of production, food prices could soar in years when not enough grain is harvested. And when crop prices fall, farmers will get no extra subsidy money from the government.
However, Inland Northwest farmers will cash in this year because the new farm program is blind to rising prices. Although wheat prices are at a 20-year high, farmers who sign the contracts will still get a payment.
Wheat payments this year are estimated at 87-92 cents a bushel on 85 percent of their historic yield. By 2002, the rate could drop to as little as 45 cents.
The one-time sign up period runs from May 20 through July 12. Farmers who have retired, left the business or are opposed to locking themselves into a long-term program are the only ones likely to opt out.
“It’s too much of a risk not to take the contract,” said Dan Buob, an Edwall wheat farmer. “We’ve got high prices now, but in a couple of years that could drop as everyone produces more and more wheat.”
Randy Primmer, Spokane County executive director of the federal Farm Service Agency, which manages the farm program, said his office is booked two weeks ahead with farmers scheduled to sign up.
The agriculture department this year will hand out $8.6 billion to farmers under the new program, declining to $4 billion by 2002.
A farmer can receive up to $40,000 a year; a spouse active in the farm can pocket an additional $40,000.
FAIR overturns a 1985 program that used subsidies to control how much was planted and levied fines when farmers strayed from sound management practices.
It reduces paperwork for farmers, and relaxes the rules on conversation farming practices. Such changes also could mean a reduction in USDA field staff, though officials have yet to determine how big those cuts may be.
It also allows millions of acres of farm land to be planted with the crops that have the highest value. Pottratz, for instance, plans this year to seed his entire 1,800 acres into wheat, up from a maximum of 800 acres that he was allowed under the old program.
Farmers say they will use the extra money to upgrade machinery, pay off debts and invest in land and securities.
The income may give them a cushion against hard times in the future. For many, it’s the beginning of a seven-year span to tap their upside potential.
“We’re supposed to be able to chase the market a little bit,” Pottratz said. “This kind of program can lend itself to a pretty good roller coaster. As long as you know when to get off the roller coaster, you’ll be OK.”
, DataTimes MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: WINDOW OF OPPORTUNITY Farmers and landlords have just eight weeks - May 20 to July 12 - to sign up for the new seven-year farm program. Farm Service Agency county offices in Spokane, Davenport, Colfax, Coeur d’Alene, Plummer, Bonners Ferry, Moscow and other sites will handle the sign up.