Cultivating the Farm Vote

It's difficult to explain why farmers hold such an exalted position in American politics. They represent only 2 percent of the populace, but nevertheless elected officials often bend over backwards to win their support.

Farmers disdain and distrust government, but rely heavily on government subsidies. Under Reagan, farm price supports have grown faster than any other program--including defense. But few public officials dare suggest removing them.

Both presidential and vice presidential candidates appealed to farmers during their respective debates. Sen. Dan Quayle scored his best shot when he accused Michael Dukakis of promoting a farm policy designed by unidentified "Harvard buddies." For his part, Dukakis plans a last minute rural campaign sweep to attract the farm vote.

What gives farmers this disproportionate influence? Although some candidates don't discover farm policy until the Iowa caucus season, the influence of farmers on the American political consciousness reaches far beyond that quadriennial event.

The image of the farmer: his supposed independence and self-sufficiency, taps a sympathetic vein among the urban public. They see farmers as the last bastion of the frontier spirit and American individualism. As one Bush strategist put it, the farmer is the "last vestige of American heroism, out there alone with God and the elements."

And in a tight election, the farmers may well determine the next president.

DUKAKIS hopes that the dismal rural economy--as many as one out of every three farmers is in financial distress--will put farmers in the Democratic column. Bush is playing on farmers' social conservatism and distrust of a Northeastern liberal elite, while reminding them of the high interest rates and grain embargo of the Carter years.

Still, neither candidate has been able to attract widespread farm support. Bush once dismissed an Iowan farmer's queries about agricultural policy by snapping, "I'm running for president, not secretary of agriculture."

Not to be outdone, Dukakis made the now-famous suggestion that Iowa corn growers cultivate Belgian endive.

Nevertheless, Dukakis can still capture the farm vote, but he must do more than run on discontent with Reagan's policies. He must offer a definitive plan to revive the faltering farm economy.

One step that his plan should not include is the panacea offered by Pete DuPont and Ec 10 section leaders--removing price supports. Currently, if the market price of agricultural commodities falls below an established floor, the federal government pays farmers the difference. Conservatives argue that the supports subsidize inefficiency and perpetuate a surplus that depresses prices.

True, price supports do protect small farms that would otherwise not survive, but consolidation of these farms does not necessarily promote efficiency. These "small" holdings may be thousands of acres, quite large enough to be fully mechanized and efficient.

There is very little difference in efficiency between a farm of 10,000 and 90,000 acres. So the question becomes, would we prefer our food production to be controlled by family farmers or massive agricultural conglomerates such as Cargill?

And the floor price for agricultural commodities does, in fact, encourage surplus production. But that surplus would disappear if there were a sufficient market for those product. It would be stupid to discourage production now, since the drought has reduced agricultural production below domestic demand for the first time in 16 years.

So the solution is to open up new markets, not discourage production. With sufficient markets, the market price would rise to the level of the floor, and the cost of price supports would diminish. In 1979, when market prices were near the floor, price supports cost the U.S. less than $3 billion. In 1986, market prices were so depressed that the cost of support payments grew to more than $25 billion.

Dukakis should pledge to use tough negotiation to open Japanese and European markets to American foodstuffs. Japanese agriculture is protected so heavily that their consumers pay 27 percent of their disposable income on food, compared to 14 percent in the U.S.

He should also pledge to work toward forgiveness of Latin American foreign debt, so that those countries can afford to purchase American commodities. In the vice presidential debate, Dan Quayle insisted that debt forgiveness would be "wrong," "counterproductive" and unfair to American farmers. Quite to the contrary, removing this burden of debt would open up one of the fastest growing food markets in the world to American products. Nothing could please farmers more.