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.

Sorry, but someone made the mistake of presenting me with another Farmer's Almanac this year; consequently, I feel obliged to pass along a few kernels of insight dredged from the depths of this timely tome.

One pithy pronouncement hit me right hard before I had skimmed by page 4. “You know you're getting older when you sit in a rocker and can't get it going.”

I thought that was what grandkids were for. And my lazy Uncle Luke once looped one end of a string around a cat's tail and the other to the rocker leg, a system that worked well until Aunt Sadie caught him at it and requisitioned the cat for herself.

Another question from this page, cleverly titled “Philosofacts,” asks: “How did a fool and his money get together in the first place?” Probably inherited it or bought some of those nifty Internet stocks that popped through the ceiling a few years back. Good guess that he didn't work for it.

And now for the weather. The Farmer's Almanac predicts a “rough winter.” What other kinds are there? Even mild winters seem rough to those of us who prefer to keep heavy coats in the closet and fishing reels close at hand. Precipitation is supposed to be above normal in all regions except the Pacific Northwest, which, as I understand, always has too much anyway. That does bode well for the Southwest, however, which never seems to get enough moisture and certainly could use a bit extra this year.

Can we litigate if it turns dry again?

“Showery weather should be the characteristic of the spring.” Well there's a shock. I expect hot weather will be a characteristic of the summer and falling leaves will be prominent in autumn.

The Almanac explains that its forecasts, which have been included since the early 1800s, come from “a long-standing (and secret) formula.”

Less mysterious is the sheer volume of miscellaneous facts included in the Farmer's Almanac. For instance, someone did a survey to determine what U.S. town is the safest. Crossroads, N.M., wins. A more dubious distinction goes to Mexico City, tagged as the city with the worst case of pollution in the world. Caramba!

Mary Anderson of Lowell, Ind., won the apple pie recipe contest. That's worth knowing. Have any of you noticed that you can hardly ever find plain old apple pie in restaurants any more? They offer apple crisp, apple crunch, and apple explosion.

But no one serves apple pie like my grandma used to make: crust on the bottom, apples, sugar and cinnamon in the middle, and another crust on top, golden brown with amber traces of butter around the edges, filling oozing from the fork holes. Can't find it.

Jan. 17 and 18 will be the best days of the month for fishing. They'll bite best on Feb. 4 and 5, March 12, 13, 20, 21 and 29. In April, I'll be out of the office on the 8th, 9th, 17th, 18th, 26th and 27th.

I'll get back to you on the rest of the year, after I see how reliable these suggestions turn out.

Jan. 3, 4, 10-12 and 17 are good days to bake. Cutting firewood is best from Jan. 2-17, unless it's awfully cold on the 1st and then you'd better go ahead and fire up the chainsaw.

A number of days in January are good for castrating a farm animal, unless you're a farm animal and then the perspective is somewhat different. You can dig holes from Jan. 2-17 (if you aren't cutting wood and if the holes in question aren't post holes, which are better left for January 1, and 18-31).

A number of days are listed throughout the year as good days to quit smoking. Can't imagine there's a bad day to kick that habit.

If you need a rain barrel, and who doesn't, you can find where to get one. If you need to relieve arthritis pain, this is the catalog you want. And if you need a composting toilet, the information for ordering is at your fingertips. Where was this book when I was doing my Christmas shopping?

rsmith@primediabusiness.com