The New York Times

May 24, 1996, Friday, Late Edition - Final

Free (Not) to Farm

BYLINE: By James Bovard; James Bovard is the author of "Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty."

SECTION: Section A; Page 23; Column 2; Editorial Desk




Drought in the Plains states, along with spiraling grain prices and the specter of inflation in food costs, is drawing needed attention to farm policy.
The so-called Freedom to Farm Act, signed by President Clinton last month, reduces some Federal controls over agriculture while keeping subsidies flowing. Unfortunately, Uncle Sam is still paying lavishly to let tens of millions of acres of farmland lie fallow. And the effects of the drought have been severely worsened by these policies, which continues to limit grain production.


The most harmful tourniquet on farm output is the Conservation Reserve Program, supported by both Democratic and Republican politicians. This year the program is paying farmers to leave 36 million acres idle. The acreage, mostly corn and wheat fields, composes about 10 percent of American cropland. While many people believe that the policy of paying farmers not to plant ended with the new farm law, it continues.
The program was begun in 1985, purportedly to protect environmentally sensitive land -- fields vulnerable to erosion, for example. But it is largely a means of increasing Federal handouts. Most land enrolled in the program could easily be farmed with no major environmental harm. Farmers who enroll sign a contract to leave certain lands idle for 10 years in return for annual payments. Routinely, the payments are the equivalent of double or triple the local rental rate for the land. This is like offering people $40 an hour to go on welfare so long as they promise not to look for a job for 10 years.

A result of the Conservation Reserve Program is that much of the best farmland is left unplowed, even as world markets loudly demand more grain. The forgone harvests cut American exports by billions of dollars at a time when politicians claim to be worried about the trade deficit.

President Clinton and Congress had a chance with the new farm bill to end this system. But with its strong appeal for farmers and environmentalists alike, it was renewed. The Administration also had the option of making it easy for farmers to withdraw early from the program if crop prices are high enough to encourage planting, as they are now. Instead, it issued regulations so tangled that most farmers chose to stick with the current commitment.

The Administration has pursued other policies intended to create a domestic grain shortage. Last year, it continued to spend lavishly on export subsidies, using tax dollars to underwrite foreign buyers who wound up getting American wheat at fire-sale prices.

Also, despite signs of a potential shortfall in corn reserves, last year the Administration required corn growers participating in support programs to leave five million acres idle. Since then, corn prices have more than doubled. The mandate symbolized the Administration's determination to minimize harvests in order to maximize prices -- and farmers' votes. (Consumers, who face higher food prices as a result,are also voters, but they usually don't think about farm policy in the voting booth.)

One positive aspect of the new farm bill is that this sort of set-aside is prohibited. But the President is talking about trying to amend the law, and it is difficult to know which foolish policies will be revived.

Food is too important to become simply another political pawn. The Government must stop idling farmlands and end its mindless policy of artificial scarcity.