Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Debbie Stabenow says there aren’t many comparisons between the conditions in agriculture today and the way things were nearly 80 years ago – thankfully.

Stabenow, a Democrat from Michigan, says the situation got so dire during the Great Depression in the early 1930s that crops were worth so little farmers burned them for fuel. Food was left in the fields because it wasn’t worth the cost of harvesting.

“One farmer said that in South Dakota the county elevator listed corn as minus three cents,” Stabenow said in a speech at the USDA Agricultural Outlook Forum in Arlington, Va., today. “If you wanted to sell them a bushel of corn, you had to bring in three cents. They couldn't afford to handle it.”

Stabenow referred to that bit of history as she talked about the new farm bill her committee will begin working on sometime later this year or early in 2012. She said farmers need a “smarter, simpler and more streamlined” safety net in the new law. (Stabenow and former President Bill Clinton were featured speakers at the Outlook Forum.)

“As we look at the next Farm Bill, we need to make the best use of our limited dollars, and make sure we're using them on programs and policies that work for production agriculture today,” Stabenow said.

“As we get started writing this bill, I’m going to ask members of the committee and the stakeholders – all of you here today – to focus on principles, not programs. We should start with principles that will guide us as we evaluate what works and what doesn’t in today’s economy and for the unique needs facing our farmers today.”

The first principle will be to create the “best safety net and the best tools for managing risk.

“We have farmers sinking almost $300 per acre into the ground in the spring in the hopes that it will produce a valuable crop six months later,” She said. “We need an effective safety net so that we aren’t watching family businesses go under because of a few days of bad weather or market factors outside of their control.”

Stabenow has been something of an unknown quantity for farm groups and other stakeholders because of her relatively low profile on the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry in the past. She succeeded Sen. Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas after the latter was defeated for re-election last Nov. 2.

Stabenow indicated she will work for smarter, simpler and streamlined farm programs. “You do not have the time to fill out a lot of paperwork or to try and understand a myriad of complex – sometimes conflicting – programs, much less try to explain them to bankers and landlords,” She noted. “We can provide better service to farmers while also reducing their costs and respecting their time.”

“In the long view, no nation is healthier than its children, or more prosperous than its farmers,” she quoted President Harry Truman as saying. “That’s another principle we need to be thinking about. America produces an abundance of safe, nutritious food. As we look at the programs that help feed America, we should make sure that they are effective and being delivered to the people who need them.”

She said those programs also have to work for America’s farmers and ranchers, “who are our partners in the effort to end hunger in America.”

She did not give a timetable for work on the 2012 farm bill.