Deficit Act Called Threat to Farm Bill : Gramm-Rudman May Force Changes, Head of Federation Says

Times Staff Writer

The five-year farm program enacted last month may not survive 1986 if Congress seriously attacks the nation's huge budget deficit, a leading agricultural figure said Sunday.

Robert B. Delano, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, called the massive new farm legislation a "clumsy and costly" compromise that is unlikely to survive serious implementation of the Gramm-Rudman Act.

The 1985 deficit-control legislation, which the farm bureau supported, imposes across-the-board spending cuts if lawmakers fail to reduce the deficit and balance the budget on their own. "I am sure that the hassle over the Gramm-Rudman . . . law will continue and that agricultural appropriations will be part of it," Delano told a crowded news conference in Atlanta on the eve of the national federation's 67th annual meeting.

"Farm and ranch people are willing to accept an appropriate share of spending cuts," Delano said, but "Congress must not be allowed to balance the budget on the backs of farmers or through new taxes or increasing tax rates."

'Identify Political Opponents'

He called on the 3.3 million farm bureau members "to identify political opponents and to support friends" in this election year.

Although the farm bureau has no national political action committee to raise campaign contributions, a number of state federations--including California's--do have PACs. The national federation will consider creation of a national PAC this week.

The farm bureau under Delano's 6-year reign has moved from its traditional support of a Depression-era program of rigid price supports and crop subsidies toward a policy more responsive to world market forces. This has been no small feat during a time when farm failures have rivaled the 1930s.

Among the new farm program's positive features, Delano said, are greater emphasis on supporting export sales and linking subsidies to average market prices so that support levels rise and fall with prices rather than remain fixed for the life of the legislation. It gives the secretary of agriculture broad discretion over how boldly--or timidly--to respond to changing market conditions.

Special-Interest Lobbying

"I've been in favor of leaving as much discretion as possible with the secretary," Delano said in an interview. "Congress too often has tied his hands. Let the voters decide" how well the Administration carries out the program, he said.

Farmers and ranchers remain frustrated, he added, by last year's prolonged battle to enact legislation replacing the 1981 farm bill. He criticized what he called the "political logrolling and grandstanding by Congress--and the seeming lack of direction from the (Reagan) Administration--and unrelenting pressures from special-interest groups." He said he referred to "certain commodity groups" that "failed to look at all of agriculture" in lobbying for special treatment for themselves.

Delano, a Virginia farmer, has headed the farm bureau since Allan Grant of California stepped down in 1980. He surprised many last month by announcing that he will not seek a fourth two-year term in balloting scheduled for Thursday.

As a result, an unprecedentedly lively campaign is under way with half a dozen candidates from the Midwest and South seeking to succeed him.

Delano said his decision to step down was influenced by family and farm considerations. He acted as early as he did, he said, to increase member participation in selecting a new president.

But Delano has also been discussed as a possible successor to John R. Block, who last week announced that he will resign as secretary of agriculture in mid-February. Delano said he "would consider" serving as head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which will implement the farm program. But he also voiced support for Richard Lyng, former undersecretary of agriculture and director of the California Department of Food and Agriculture under then-Gov. Reagan.

Delano said he would not be interested in serving in USDA's No. 2 slot if John R. Norton III, who heads a huge agricultural enterprise in California and Arizona, resigns as many here expect him to this week in order to look after his business interests.

In the race to take over from Delano, the South holds the upper hand with 138 of the 141 votes needed to command a majority of the 280-member House of Delegates, the farm bureau's policy-setting body.

Of the West's 26 votes, California holds just 8, despite the fact that it is the nation's leading agricultural state, accounting for about 10% of value of the nation's crops. By contrast, Texas has 22 votes, the largest state bloc.

Of the remaining two regions, the Midwest has 92 votes and the Northeast has 18.

South's Votes Fragmented

Despite its numerical superiority, however, the South's votes are likely to be fragmented among at least three presidential contenders from Georgia, South Carolina and Kentucky. In addition, two Midwesterners are running--including the normal successor, Elton Smith of Michigan, who is vice president of the national federation.

Some delegates consider Smith's age--74--to be a disadvantage, however. Delano's early announcement also is being interpreted as indicative of a lack of national support for Smith.

Henry J. Voss, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, is quietly positioning himself as a possible compromise candidate if a deadlock results on Thursday.

"I'm not an announced candidate yet," he said in an interview Sunday, "but I probably will be tomorrow."

Voss, who is a strong advocate of a sales-oriented farm policy, said the question of farm-bureau leadership is particularly acute because of "the dynamic change going on in agriculture--even if some of us don't want to recognize it."

"We're more and more in a one-world economy," he said, and agriculture will have to become increasingly market oriented.

"You won't just raise cauliflower," he explained, "but you will raise cauliflower for a given market."

Farming in the past has tended to be production oriented with little attention paid to market needs, he said.

California, with its cornucopia of crops--some 250 different commodities--and its heavy reliance on export sales, has been the most outspoken proponents of dismantling the 50-year program of crop subsidies and price supports--elements that are relatively less important to their operations than to farmers in the grain-growing states of the Midwest and South.

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