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For the week of Jan. 19 through Jan. 25, 2000

American farmers facing major challenges

Commentary by DAN GLICKMAN


It goes without saying that 1999 was a difficult year for American farmers and ranchers. Farm prices continued to slump. Natural disasters devastated parts of the American landscape, wreaking billions of dollars in damage. And although the worst of the global financial crisis appears to be over, record worldwide grain and oilseed production kept American farm exports low.

USDA was there to help farmers cope. All told in 1999, we made $22.7 billion in direct payments and provided over 37,000 loans and loan guarantees worth almost $4 billion in credit.

While I am proud of what we as a government have done to help farmers, some of it was made necessary by an overall farm policy that fails to provide the critical support our farmers need. We delivered on a multibillion dollar emergency assistance package in the fall, but the very fact that we needed such a bill for the second year in a row shows that the 1996 farm bill is not living up to its promise.

It is time to move beyond damage control to a policy that helps farmers prepare for disasters and downturns and gives them the tools they need to thrive. We've begun to take the first steps as the Clinton Administration recently proposed a $1.3 billion conservation initiative that will provide $600 million to farmers who voluntarily adopt plans to help curb erosion and protect water supplies from runoff. Among other things, the plan will also allow us to enroll 3.6 million more acres in the Conservation Reserve Program, and it invests $300 million in strengthening other USDA conservation programs. This plan allows us to help farmers, even as we protect our natural resources on behalf of all Americans.

In February, the administration will offer more farm policy proposals, including a targeted, counter cyclical income assistance program. Throughout the year, I will be working closely with both parties in Congress to further repair the holes in the farm bill, especially the hole that exists where there was once a strong farm safety net.

Global trade remains one of the keys to boosting farm incomes. In 1999, despite continuing recession in many of our key foreign markets, we used the tools at our disposal to create export opportunities. We provided export credit guarantees worth more than $3 billion. We shipped eight million metric tons of food aid overseas, nearly five times the 1998 level. Also, President Clinton relaxed restrictions on the export of food to Iran, Libya and the Sudan.

I am very optimistic about the agreement we reached in November that moves China one step closer to membership in the World Trade Organization. With the world's largest nation agreeing to play by the rules of international trade, American farmers could eventually increase their exports by nearly a billion dollars a year.

I remain concerned about the increasing concentration in the farm economy and its effect on small family farmers and ranchers. We will continue to work with the Justice Department to vigilantly monitor anti-competitive practices. Passage of a mandatory price reporting bill was one of the key agriculture accomplishments of 1999, and USDA will be working this year to implement the new program.

In 2000, we will be encouraging the pursuit of alternative forms of agriculture. For example, we expect to release the final set of organic agriculture standards, which should stimulate further growth in what is already a multibillion dollar market.

For farmers to prosper, rural America as a whole must prosper. USDA's efforts to improve quality of life in rural communities created or saved nearly 200,000 jobs in 1999. We spent $3.2 billion to improve rural utilities—everything from basic electricity to waste disposal systems to Internet access. And thanks in part to a $5.1 billion investment in rural housing, three out of four rural Americans now own their own home. That is the highest rural home ownership rate in our history, well above the current national rate.

As we reflect on the entire 20th century, we see staggering changes in the way farmers lived, the way they grew their crops and the way they tended to the land. As recently as 1930, for example, only 13 percent of farms had electricity. The tractor didn't become a farm staple until after World War II. There was barely any focus on private land conservation until the Depression.

Just as much change, if not more, awaits American agriculture in this new century. Change often brings a certain amount of anxiety and uncertainty. But I believe that American farmers and ranchers, the most innovative and resilient in the world, will be able to adapt to change and thrive in the years to come.

As they adapt, they will have a partner and an advocate in USDA. We will continue to be there, conducting cutting edge research, opening new markets, empowering rural communities, doing everything we can to help farmers turn a profit and meet the challenges of the 21st century.

 

Dan Glickman is the U. S. Secretary of Agriculture.

 

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