By Carol Ann Riha

The Associated Press

DES MOINES, IA (AP)--Farmers want a fair chance to make money with the government providing better help in expanding trade opportunities both overseas and domestically, Iowa Farm Bureau members say.

Forty Farm Bureau members met in a day-long session March 29 to discuss the direction of federal farm policy in the 2002 farm bill.

"What they all said was that the goal should be to create an environment that allows for profitability," said Emily Eide, Iowa Farm Bureau's director of national affairs. "The disagreement probably comes in 'How do you accomplish that goal?"'

Issues identified by the group will be presented to Farm Bureau members in a questionnaire. Members also will have a chance to debate the issues at county meetings in August and September and at a state meeting in November, Eide said.

The goal is to identify issues to put before Congress for consideration before the 1996 Freedom to Farm bill expires in 2002.

The Republican-authored bill scaled back crop subsidies, ended controls on planting and gave farmers a series of fixed annual payments. Critics say the fixed payments were insufficient when commodity prices fell sharply in 1998.

Over the past year, Congress has approved $15 billion in emergency relief to compensate for low prices and weather-related crop losses.

While profitability is a top issue, Eide said, family farmers have not been driven off their land en masse because of the farm crisis, as some analysts had predicted a year ago.

"I don't see that there is a mass exodus from agriculture," Eide said, adding that Farm Bureau members reported Tuesday they had "not seen any farm sales in their areas."

According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, there were 96,000 farms in Iowa last year, down 1,000 from the previous year.

At the same time, USDA statistics show a "fairly significant" decline in the number of farms with $10,000 to $100,000 in sales, said Jim Sands, state statistician with the USDA's National Agricultural Statistics Service.

"In 1999, Iowa had 38,100 of those farms. In 1998, we had 38,500 farms in that category. Almost half of our loss came in that size group," Sands said. At the same time, he said, "We had over 1,500 farms gained in those folks under $10,000.

"What we're seeing is that folks may not have gotten out of farming, but they can't make their living out of farming," he said. "They went somewhere else to get a job to support their family. Even those they didn't leave farming, they left it from an active standpoint."

Eide said farmers are struggling.

"Certainly it's difficult financially. The government assistance that came through was very helpful to them," she said.

Still, their outlook is positive overall, Eide said.

"I didn't hear any of them say, 'Unless dramatic changes are made, we're out of agriculture,"' she said. "I think they were overall very optimistic."

Another point on which farmers agree is that "the U.S. trade policy hinders our chance to be profitable," Eide said.

Farmers say the government doesn't adequately use the tools available to promote exports and doesn't focus enough on increasing domestic consumption, through tax policies or support of products such as ethanol.

"They look at the Chinese market and we have the debate going on right now in Washington," she said. "There was a feeling that the government has not done what it can do to make the Europeans play fair."

"The use of unilateral sanctions make many of our purchasers wary of making a long-term commitment to U.S. commodities," Eide said.

Another point on which the government falls short, farmers say, is its support of GMOs, or genetically modified organisms. The government needs to step into the debate in support of genetically engineered seed, Eide said.

"It's a partnership between the industry who's developing the products and the government who's approving them," she said.

Genetically engineered grains provide added health benefits for consumers and reduce pesticide use on the farm, she said.

"We've been using hybrid seeds for years and years and years. No one has ever raised a concern about the safety. These products are no different," she said.

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