By Philip Brasher
AP Farm Writer
WASHINGTON (AP)--Move over, Iowa. It's time New Jersey got a share of the billions of dollars in federal aid sent to farmers each year, Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman says.
Instead of devoting farm assistance to a handful of Midwestern and Southern states--what Glickman calls the "Depression-era regions"--he wants to share the largesse with growers nationwide, including fruit and vegetable growers who now get little or no federal aid.
"No longer is farm policy the province of seven or eight states," Glickman said in an interview with The Associated Press. "We produce agricultural commodities everywhere in this country."
Seven states--Iowa, Texas, Illinois, Kansas, Minnesota, Nebraska and North Dakota--get half of all the government farm payments each year but account for only about 30% of the nation's agricultural output.
California produced $25 billion worth of crops and livestock in 1998, twice as much as No. 2 Iowa, but got less federal farm aid than Montana. Pennsylvania produced $1 billion more than North Dakota but got one-tenth as much government money.
Even New Jersey, not normally regarded as a farm state, produced nearly $800 million worth of fruit, vegetables, milk and other agricultural products in 1998.
Glickman made a first step toward what he calls a "national" farm policy by proposing last month that Congress double spending on conservation programs. Some of that $1.3 billion in extra spending would go to growers who traditionally don't participate in federal programs. A proposed expansion of the federally subsidized crop insurance system also would offer coverage for livestock producers for the first time.
But the former Kansas congressman, in his sixth year as agriculture secretary, thinks that Congress should go a lot further when it writes a new farm program in 2002.
He said federal subsidies should be targeted toward guaranteeing all farmers a minimum income instead of supporting the prices of select crops, as the government has done since the 1930s.
For Glickman, it is a matter of both fairness and political expediency. Support for farm spending could dwindle if more areas of the country don't benefit from it, he warned.
"I don't see the government getting out of the business of trying to help farmers stay alive," he said. "The only real answer is providing some safety net on income, and the only way I think you can do that fairly is to broaden what the income package is, going beyond wheat, corn, cotton and rice and including other things as well."
The $8.7 billion farm bailout that Congress approved last year would never have been as big as it was had there not been a drought and hurricane damage on the East Coast that brought a nationwide attention to the agricultural economy, Glickman said. Even then, most of the money in the package went to the states that traditionally get most federal aid.
In the interview Feb. 17, Glickman also:
--Expressed skepticism that food would be safer if federal regulation were consolidated in one agency, as consumer groups and others want. "My experience in Washington tells me that when there is a problem the first desire is to move boxes around," he said. The Clinton Administration is working on a new strategic plan for food safety; so far officials have taken no position on the consolidation issue.
--Said he has not decided whether to require pork farmers to vote on whether to keep their research and promotion program known for the "other white meat" advertising slogan.
The department had trouble validating sufficient signatures on petitions gathered by the program's opponents. Glickman can call a referendum on his own only if the program is not working the way it was intended.
Bruce Babcock, director of Iowa State University's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, predicts Glickman will have a tough time convincing grain farmers they should be sharing more of the federal farm aid pie with livestock producers and growers of other crops.
"The established commodities would fight it tooth and nail," he said. Moreover, it isn't clear that producers who haven't received federal aid are any worse off than growers who have, he said. Fruit and vegetable growers, for example, learned to diversify their operations in order to cope with fluctuations in prices.
Glickman's desire for getting more farmers on the federal dole also would be a radical departure from the market-oriented farm policy that Glickman supported and President Clinton signed into law in 1996.
The Freedom to Farm law, which scaled back crop subsidies in return for several years of fixed payments to farms, was intended to wean growers from federal support.
Clinton's 2001 budget proposed a new "supplemental income" program in which payments would be tied to fluctuations in revenue for the eight major crops that are already subsidized.
Glickman said that was as far as the Administration could go this year. "Ours is more crop specific than where we ought to be in the long term," he said.