Southwest farmers go about their usual business this fall, harvesting, seeding small grains, taking care of livestock and such with more than a little unease about how to go about planning for next year's crops.

Even as they strip the last fields of cotton, combine the last few acres of grain and hope for rain to germinate wheat, they keep a close watch on Washington, waiting to see what, if any, action the U.S. Senate will take on new farm legislation.

Most hope to see something done before year's end. They'd like to replace the Food Security Act of 1996,which many believe was a well-meant but flawed attempt at limiting government's role in farm decisions. The act also aimed to lower government costs for farm aid.

The legislation hit neither target. Government payments have been at an all-time high and commodity prices have recently hit historic lows. The country continues to produce more commodities than markets can absorb. And without government payments, farm income would be even more dismal, except for livestock producers, who are currently doing well.

Southwest commodity association observers believe the Senate will move before the year is out, pressured by the action from the House of Representatives and from farm state constituents who want a policy change.

A looming election year also will spur action, observers say.

But obstacles remain. For one, Secretary of Agriculture Anne Venneman has issued several statements urging patience on enacting new farm legislation, citing current government attention to the war on terrorism and the time remaining before the current farm law expires.

Also, early proposals coming from the Senate Agriculture Committee appear to be significantly different from the bill the House recently passed, with reduced funding and a shorter duration for the law. Increased emphasis on conservation could take needed money from commodity support programs.

And not everyone is enthralled with the House law. Peanut farmers stand to lose the quota program that has provided price and supply stability to the industry for decades. Peanut state legislators will try to get the quota system re-inserted into law when the Senate takes up the debate.

All this uncertainty, on top of a national crisis, poor yields, low commodity prices and increasingly high production costs, has left many farmers wringing their hands in frustration. An Oklahoma farmer, Mike Hogg, put his disillusion into verse, “Cotton Farmer Blues.” He sent me a copy. A few lines represent the discouragement Hogg and many other Southwestern farmers feel this fall.

For thirty-two years I've farmed cotton, and alas,
I think the time has come to give it a pass.
Oh yes, the price we get is really quite nifty.
Twice what I'm getting … almost makes fifty.
Well I'm quitting cotton, and you want' hear me holler,
Unless, by some miracle, prices should edge near a dollar
.

Other observers say farmers' moods are about as bleak as they've seen in years. And fewer young people are going into farming. Rebecca Parker, County Extension agent in Denton, County, Texas, says few young would-be farmers could qualify for a big enough loan to start a farm.

She says the nation call ill afford for the farm industry to be “our last priority. The American farmer is the backbone of this country. What will we do when they (today's farmers) are gone? What will we eat? What will we wear? Where will we live?”

Farmers I've talked to over the past six weeks agree that Congress' primary focus for the immediate future must be national security. But they also are concerned their plight will be forgotten, that agriculture will be a last priority. Many see action on a new farm bill as more than a needed adjustment in a policy that's not working. It also would show that their legislators tuned in and are trying to understand the problems farm constituents face.

That's a good message for legislators to convey on the cusp of an election year.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com