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Congress' legislative cup runneth over

Call it election-eve posturing or a preliminary to next year's farm bill debate, but Congress received a spate of farm policy proposals in the days leading up to its scheduled adjournment.

One of the most interesting was a bill introduced by Reps. Earl Pomeroy, D- N.D., and David Minge, D-Minn., that would raise marketing loan rates for each of the major commodities.

Under the bill, the marketing loan rate for cotton would jump from the current rate of 51.92 cents per pound to 61 cents; for corn, from $1.89 to $2.43 per bushel; for soybeans, from $5.26 to $5.50; and for wheat, $2.58 to $3.40. No figure was given for rice, but the increase would be similar.

The proposal drew the usual objections from those who still have difficulty understanding the marketing loan; that is, higher loan rates would encourage more production and allow foreign competitors to undercut U.S. prices.

Cotton farmers and an increasing number of corn, wheat and soybean producers know that it would do no such thing. By allowing farmers to redeem crops at the prevailing world price, the marketing loan would insure that U.S. farm commodities remain competitive.

Besides that, it's difficult to see how higher loan rates could encourage farmers to plant many more acres than they are now in the absence of acreage reduction programs in current farm legislation.

Another proposal would pay farmers up to $50,000 a year to adopt soil and water-saving practices such as no-till or strip-till planting. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Minge are the lead sponsors of the bill.

The legislation would offer three levels of payment - $20,000 for practices such as contour farming or irrigation management, $35,000 for rotational grazing, erosion control structures or cover crops or $50,000 for developing a conservation plan for the entire farm or restoring wildlife habitat.

"In these times of low prices, these payments would provide farmers with the economic means to maintain and adopt critically important conservation practices," Harkin said.

Perhaps the most tantalizing proposal was one made outside the United States. The Canadian National Farmers Union called on the five largest grain exporters - the United States, Canada, the European Union, Argentina and Australia - to take three percent of their land out of production annually until world grain prices double.

"With supplies low, small changes in supplies can have large positive effects on prices," said Canadian NFU Vice President Fred Tait. "The vast profits among processors and retailers demonstrate they could easily pay higher prices to farmers. The mere announcement that the five major exporters were negotiating such an agreement might lead to significant price increases."

Under the NFU proposal, the Canadian government would pay farmers $40 per acre to voluntarily take land out of production at a cost of about $344 million annually when the reduction reached 10 percent.

Getting agreement on such a concept would be a monumental undertaking - especially when you consider the NFU proposal includes such provisions as a requirement that the European Union reduce support payments to its farmers.

But it may take such global thinking to solve the current farm crisis.

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