“Any program that has to pass by that senate is just like a rat having to pass a cat convention; it's sure to be pounced on, and the more meritorious the scheme is, the less chance it has of passing.” Will Rogers

Sometimes I think Will Rogers was as much prophet as philosopher. Things he observed and wrote more than 60 years ago remain as pertinent and as bitingly accurate today as they did when he served as a self-appointed watchdog of the U.S. Congress.

A case in point is the continuing debate over a farm bill, which legislators have chewed on since last fall. I hope, by the time this issue hits your mailbox, the Senate has figured out that farmers are, indeed, hurting and need help as expeditiously as possible.

A new farm law could have been enacted by now and farmers could, even now, be poring over new regulations and making production, financing and marketing plans for the 2002 crop. Bankers would know already what support farmers could expect and better understand production expense needs.

But planting time is close — they'll be putting cotton seed in the ground in the Lower Rio Grande Valley any day now — and still farmers don't know what kind of support they'll have.

Rogers was right about “meritorious schemes” that can't get by the Senate without taking a serious mauling. The House offered a perfectly good farm program way back in the fall and then ran it by the Senate.

The Senate, as predicted more than six decades ago, pounced on that program and began ripping it apart. Various legislators offered new versions, most of which provided considerably less protection than the House version and some of which promised to cause more problems for an industry already beset with trouble enough.

Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, for instance, wanted an amendment to alter payment limitations. Those limits would reduce support significantly for commercial-sized farms. Ronnie Hopper, president, Plains Cotton Growers, Inc., on his way out the door to Washington to try to head off this misguided piece of legislation, labeled the proposal “a crippling amendment. The main impact on cotton would be a significant reduction in support through elimination of the 3-entity rule and a reduction in the combined payment limit for the fixed and counter-cyclical support payments.

“Another huge problem posed by the Grassley Amendment would be the elimination of marketing certificate authority and changing the marketing loan program from a non-recourse to a recourse loan,” Hopper said.

Sen. Richard Lugar, Indiana, also has criticized proposals and wants to see less government involvement in agriculture. There appears to be a contention that larger farms should be entitled to less help that “small family farms.”

It's time for legislators to get real. The small family farm, of which I am a product, no longer exists as a significant contributor to the nation's food and fiber supply. It's wonderful nostalgia to think back to days when a family subsisted on 100 acres or less, lived simply and supplied much of the food needed to sustain itself. According to my parents, life on small farms consisted mostly of hard times, meager incomes and insecure futures. Economies of scale worked then as now.

That's not to imply that small farms deserve nothing. Anyone scratching out a living, or, in some cases making good money from a few acres, deserves a safety net. But Congress can't ignore the well being of large commercial operations, most of which remain family farms, in exchange for a welfare program geared to sustain a lifestyle that probably was never as idyllic as we'd like to think.

rsmith@primediabusiness.com