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Even the best of intentions manage to get all messed up when the U.S. government gets into "helping" American farmers.

In 1988, Congress rushed through a $3.9 billion relief package designed to save small farmers - chiefly grain growers in the Midwest - from bankruptcy because of the devastating effects of a drought.Yet the program grew out of control and the drought relief money went for every kind of farming loss imaginable - and the word is used advisedly since some of the losses were imaginary - and to every part of the nation. Big, well-to-do operations were helped as well as small farmers. More than $1 billion was spent outside the drought area.

These and other startling figures were uncovered by the Associated Press in a seven-month study of how the drought relief cash was spent. The results are discouraging and offer another good argument for getting government out of trying to support agriculture.

"Drought relief became a one-time bonus for thousands of farmers in parts of the country that in 1988 generally enjoyed good crops at higher prices and would not have qualified as disaster areas," the AP study said.

Not all the blame can be laid on Washington. Many of the decisions on spending the money were made by local agricultural officials and they plainly went far beyond what Congress had intended.

The worst part of the whole program was not that disaster relief went to some farmers who were not raising grain and whose losses had nothing to do with drought - a weather-caused farming loss is still a loss.

What really stings is that payments sometimes were made to farmers who had no real losses, payments sometimes far exceeded any loss, and payments went to people and organizations who were not small farmers or did not need the money.

Some farmers had crop insurance, but also collected the federal drought money, then replanted the same ground in time to reap a successful harvest - a form of "triple dipping."

Disaster payments went to banks, corporations, investment firms, churches and even local governments. One produce company that has a $9 million-a-year business collected $100,000 in government funds, even though the program was supposed to be limited to operations that earned less than $2 million.

Despite the drought, the United States had record farm profits in 1988 with net cash income more than $2 billion higher than it was in the previous record year of 1987. Higher prices and stored surplus crops absorbed much of the impact.

Under the circumstances, the federal government ought to start getting out of agriculture. Nearly every federal program, from price supports to disaster relief, only seems to make things worse.