Southwestern farmers need the Senate to act in as timely a manner as has the House to pass a new farm bill and to follow the basic blueprint laid out in that legislation.

“The claim that there is no hurry because the 1996 legislation has another year is a serious misconception,” says Steve Verett, executive director of the Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., in Lubbock.

“We've relied on supplemental assistance, about $8 billion per year, from the government for the past four years,” Verett says. “That just kept agriculture solvent. The financial community can't continue to make loans based on the assumption that government assistance will be available.”

The farm bill passed recently by the House of Representatives, he says, “codifies and assures a certain level of assistance. The counter cyclical nature of the bill assures assistance if prices are low and less government spending when prices rise.”

He says farmers have faced four years of historically low prices, drought and record high expenses.

“We can't go another year without a new farm bill.”

Verett says farmers are “as discouraged as I've ever seen them. Typically, they are used to dealing with all kinds of perils — market, weather and expenses. But seldom do they have to face them all at once, as they have for the past few years.”

Other crop observers say Southern High Plains farmers have experienced four straight years of disaster, primarily drought, but also hail and cold damage to cotton crops.

“Put together, all these factors will wear down even the most optimistic farmer,” Verett says. “This year started off well. We had ample soil moisture to get a crop started but in late May, rainfall simply shut off.”

Most dryland acreage in the Southern Plains will produce well below average yields, and as much as 1.5 million acres was abandoned. Much of that never received enough moisture to germinate seed.

“A lot of farmers, because the depressed economy has hung on so long, believe it will never turn around. Many are asking if it's time to call it quits.”

The problem with that is that few have viable options elsewhere. “If they had employment opportunities, many would hang it up, but the uncertain economy makes it more difficult.”

Verett says critics who point to figures showing farm income at record highs miss extremely important points.

“If they take away animal agriculture, which has done extremely well the past few years, the situation for row crops looks grim. Prices are at historical lows. Strip away the government payments, and income just about disappears.”

He says the fact that government spending for agriculture is at an all-time high and farmers continue to struggle underlines just how serious the farm depression is.

“Despite what associations have accomplished working with Congress the past few years, many farmers are still not able to hang on. The world price for cotton is considerably below production cost, so framers must have government support to stay in business.”

Verett says maintaining a viable agricultural economy is vital to the nation. “It's part of our national security. The agricultural economy was in trouble long before the Sept. 11 tragedy. And the agricultural community has aware that the crisis had to take precedence.

“Congress had to deal with the immediate issue (fighting terrorism). But the problems of agriculture have not gone away and now other segments of the U.S. economy face problems similar to those that agriculture has been facing for the past four years.

“We'd like to see agriculture lead the nation out of these economic problems.”

Verett believes the Senate will act quickly to consider a farm bill.

A lot of differences of opinion exist in the Senate as to how the next farm bill should work. Verett believes the final version, however, “will tend to migrate back to the framework the House has provided. We'll see some differences, especially with spending, but a blueprint is out there. A lot of people and farm associations support that bill; a lot of people understand it.

“It has been debated and compromised in the House and divides available funds fairly.

“Changes to that structure likely would have to come from the agricultural segment,” Verett says. “The House bill will be defended. It is a benchmark and we hope the Senate will come back to it.”

Verett says the House bill “provides funds for adequate commodity support. That's critical and we have to get it before we plan for next year's crop.”

rsmith@primediabusiness.com