It didn't take long to find out where our national priorities lie.

When the amazing shrinking budget surplus came to light recently, one of the first necks stretched out over the Congressional economic chopping block was the proposed agriculture program that had already been pared back beneath the comfort zone for most farm interests.

And you can paint both parties with the same broad brushstrokes on these issues. With few exceptions, legislators have been reluctant to champion the interests of America's farmers during the increasingly heated debate over what to do with an economy that's slowing down and a budget that's not nearly as robust as folks believed just a few weeks ago.

And the funding needs are indeed significant.

This country requires a strong defense program, one that's efficient, effective and fiscally accountable for the money it spends. At no time during my life has that been more apparent.

And we certainly can never forsake education. Our public schools, even with their all too apparent problems, provide a first step in fulfilling millions of dreams.

And, as one closer to the promised land of Social Security than I like to admit, I see those funds as a promise that the money we invested out of paychecks over 30 or 40 years will be available when we retire.

But agriculture is equally, if not more, important than any budget item Congress will debate this or any other year. Even though a paltry number of citizens continue to earn their livings from active farming, the contribution they make is enormous and the impact their labors have on the lives of the rest of us is incalculable.

Because farmers are willing to invest huge sums of money, countless hours and more sweat equity than most of us ever generate, we don't have to worry about a food shortage. And we don't have to worry about spending a sizable portion of our incomes to feed ourselves, about 10 percent. Most of us spend more than that on entertainment.

Aside from the convenience our cheap-food farm policies have provided, a viable agriculture also serves as a keystone to national defense. Currently, we import a lot of food items, but we don't have to. We have the resources to be pretty much self-sufficient if farmers are allowed to make a decent profit from their efforts.

We don't have to depend on foreign sources for the basics in our diets. We have natural resources, technology and intelligent farmers who can produce more per acre than anyone. We might need to trade for bananas and coffee and a few other items, but we can produce grain, meat, fruits and vegetables without fear of being held hostage by a country that chooses to use food as a weapon, as some have tried with oil. Self-sufficiency for food production, during a period of crisis will be critical.

And, as legislators begin to waffle on the early proposals made for the next farm bill, the public media has taken the opportunity to blast good farm policies because they are not welfare programs.

Recent articles and network television newscasts criticizing programs that include large farms in their payment schedules fall far short of accuracy and land square on the side of sensationalism. Sure, large farms get a large portion of government payments. But they produce a large portion of the commodities consumers need and spend so little of their paychecks for. These large farms also make large investments in land, equipment, seed and other production materials. Somehow, the public media chooses to ignore that aspect as well as the small price Americans pay for food compared to every other industrialized country in the world.

Without a sound farm policy that allows farmers to stay on the land, the military can't eat or clothe itself; education becomes a luxury for those who don't have to spend everything they earn to buy food; and Social Security will matter little if retirees can't eat.

Strong agriculture makes a strong economy. The dollar earned on a farm turns over as many as seven times within the community. And the industries that support farms also support a lot of workers who design, manufacture, transport and repair the materials a modern farmer needs.

This country must have a strong defense, the best schools in the world and a viable retirement program. But an agriculture program that encourages a farmer to stay on his land is equally vital.

We can have all those things. In economic slowdowns, however, a bit of balance is required.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com