Remarks to the State Presidents of the American Farm Bureau Federation

 

July 13, 1988

 

Thank you, Dean Kleckner, and thank you all. And welcome to the White House.

 

On Monday I met with the congressional leadership to discuss the drought that has afflicted so many thousands of acres of our farmland and that has already touched so many Americans' lives. Tomorrow I'll be flying out to Illinois and Iowa to see the effects of the drought for myself. But when I heard that you were going to be here in Washington, I decided to take this day to meet with you, you who are in so many ways the leaders of American agriculture.

 

First, let me say our administration is committed to taking whatever actions are necessary to protect America's farmers from excessive losses during this drought. Already we've taken a number of actions. We've formed an interagency drought policy committee to coordinate Federal action. The Army Corps of Engineers is working hard to keep traffic moving on the Mississippi River and elsewhere in spite of some of the lowest water levels in history. And in order to help livestock owners, Secretary Lyng has permitted grazing on set-aside lands. But needless to say, much more needs to be done.

 

And now is the time to start work on legislation to help the many crop farmers who will suffer substantial losses. At my direction, Secretary Lyng has been working closely with the leadership of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees in an effort to draft timely legislation. We've sought to make this a bipartisan effort, and so far I'm pleased by the cooperation that we've received.

 

Permit me to outline the five points we're seeking in this drought legislation. First, relief should go to those who need it most. Creating windfalls for some will mean less for the truly deserving. Second, many of our farmers purchased Federal crop insurance, a sound business decision. They should not be penalized relative to farmers who did not act with such prudence. Third, this legislation should not force farmers to do unreasonable things. No program should, for example, include any incentive for a farmer to plow under his crops. Fourth, drought relief spending has to be considered in the context of our efforts to reduce the Federal deficit; and according to the November 1987 bipartisan budget agreement that we reached with Congress, to put it very simply, we mustn't bust the budget. The automatic budget sequestration cuts that overspending triggers would take back from farmers with one hand what we're providing in drought relief with the other. And finally, this humanitarian assistance should not be used as a means to other ends. Extraneous matters, such as rewriting the existing farm bill, will only deter our efforts to provide this much-needed aid.

 

Now permit me to tell you just where our efforts stand. Yesterday, after long consultations with Secretary Lyng, bipartisan legislation that meets these goals was introduced in both the House and Senate. Secretary Lyng will continue to work with the House and Senate Agriculture Committees as they mark up the drought relief package to ensure that this bipartisan, bicameral cooperation continues.

 

And yet, even as the drought continues, we would do well to look beyond it to the long-range future of American agriculture. We all know that American farmers are more than competitive in world markets -- if only those world markets give our farmers the chance to compete fairly. And this is why, under Secretary Lyng and Ambassador Clayton Yeutter's guidance, we're working to increase our agricultural exports by making world trade freer and much more fair.

 

Last July we presented at the Uruguay round in Geneva a proposal that I described as -- and by the way, that's one of the best parts of this job is that from time to time you get to quote yourself -- [laughter] -- but I described our proposal as ``the most ambitious proposal for world agricultural trade ever offered.'' Our proposal calls for nothing less than a total phaseout by the year 2000 of all policies that distort trade in agriculture. This proposal reflects one of my abiding beliefs; I think it's a belief that you share: The solution to the world agricultural problem is to get government out of the way and let farmers compete.

 

It's true, of course, that getting rid of all export subsidies, import barriers, and the like -- all the things that make it harder for our farmers to compete in world markets -- is a very tall order; but we're not backing down. At the economic summit in Toronto last month, we were able to persuade the heads of state that, at the Montreal mid-term review meeting, their trade ministers must reach agreement on a goal and a timetable for completing the Uruguay round. And I can tell you after nearly 8 years of working with these heads of state, setting a deadline, a time when the talking has to stop and the action has to begin, is a very powerful instrument for getting things done.

 

I know that you support our agricultural proposal for freer and fairer world markets. And I thank you for that support, just as I give you my heartfelt thanks for your support on a host of other things, including the textile bill and the U.S.-Canada free trade agreement. And I ask you to continue to work to help the farmers who're suffering as a result of the drought.

 

The productivity of American agriculture is one of the great success stories of our time, indeed, of all time. As recently as 1940, a single American farmer could feed 19 people for a year. Today a single American farmer feeds about 120 people for a year, and American products are shipped around the world. Through all these decades, despite drought and misfortune, the American farmer has continued to succeed.

 

We'll get over this drought. And, yes, we'll succeed in making world markets fairer and more open. And the American farmer will continue to go from strength to strength.

 

You know, tomorrow, when I meet with a group of those farmers right out there in the heart of the drought -- I'm thinking, you know, it never is very successful in saying -- Did you ever hear the funny thing I said? [Laughter] So, I don't usually repeat those, but I'm going to repeat one that I said some years ago. I wasn't in this job at the time, but I was out on the mashed-potato circuit. And I had been invited to address the Farm Bureau convention in Las Vegas. And on the way into the hall where the convention was taking place, one of those sharpers that inhabits Las Vegas for the gambling recognized me and said, ``What are you doing here?'' And I told him I was going in to address the Farm Bureau. And he said, ``What are a bunch of farmers doing in Las Vegas?'' And I couldn't resist. I said, ``Buster, they're in a business that makes a Las Vegas crap table look like a guaranteed annual income.'' [Laughter]

 

Now, don't tell anyone I did this here today because I may want to do it tomorrow. [Laughter] But thank you again for coming here today, and God bless you.

 

Note: The President spoke at 2:04 p.m. in the Roosevelt Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Dean Kleckner, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation; Secretary of Agriculture Richard Lyng; and United States Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter.