Why not cotton? Why not the textile industry? Why not grain, vegetables, citrus? Why not do for agriculture what the Bush administration recently did for steel?

I don't begrudge steel workers any advantage they'll get from increased tariffs on imports. The steel industry plays a vital role in both the economy and the security of the nation. And unfair trade practices from competing countries undermine the industry's ability to maintain profitability and continue to provide jobs and products.

I do wonder, however, why a similar response has not already been taken to protect agriculture from similar, if not even more grievous, inequities in trade. The textile industry has been hurting for several years, rendered virtually impotent by a flood of cheap imports that displace American made goods on store shelves. Mills have closed; workers by the thousands have faced unemployment, and the infrastructure of a once thriving industry has disappeared or relocated offshore.

The impact goes all the way to raw product. In the past two years, U.S. cotton farmers have watched the domestic market shrivel up, forcing them to rely on export trade to move big crops. And international trade favors competitors with currency valued significantly under the American dollar. High tariffs make our lint even more expensive overseas while our low rates encourage competitors to flood us with textile goods. The market has taken a beating.

Free trade sounds like a good idea from a political campaign stump. The prospect of producing the best quality food and fiber in the world and having those goods fetch reasonable prices sounds almost too good to be true. That's because it is.

Free trade is a myth when only one trading partner abides by the rules. As long as Europe and Canada and China and India and others operate under a different set of regulations that protect their agricultural industries and at the same time demand concessions from us, free trade will not exist. As long as the United States government grants special trade privileges to select countries in exchange for military cooperation or goodwill, the agricultural economy will suffer. As long as the U.S. government, including Administration and Congress, ignores the economic peril facing many of the nation's farmers, one of our greatest assets will be threatened.

Perhaps the steel industry has endured severe trade inequities as competitors dumped cheap products into our markets. Perhaps mills have faced significant losses. Perhaps workers have feared for their jobs.

The farm economy, however, has been in recession for the best part of the last decade, burdened with a farm policy that failed to provide an adequate safety net and accused by legislators, media and the public of taking more than its share of money from the public till.

The infrastructure of agriculture faces severe threats. Farmers face losing their jobs and their farms as equity erodes and profit potential disappears. Rural communities face the grim prospect of becoming ghost towns with no viable industry to support an economy.

Elected officials, including the president and members of Congress, have pledged to protect the textile industry and agriculture. A precedent has been established with the steel industry. It's time now to extend the same protection to our cotton and agricultural industries.