U.S. Farmers need a new subsidy program to tide them over when commodity prices are low, eliminating the need for annual disaster bills, says Rep. Larry Combest (R-Texas), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. According to an Associated Press report, he has asked farm groups to develop program proposals that could be implemented in 2002.

He points out that it's too late to have a new program ready for this year, although farmers likely will need some emergency aid to compensate for low commodity prices and rising energy costs. ``The ag economy is much more fragile than most folks realize,' Combest says. ``We are right on the edge' of widespread farm failures.

The 1996 farm law was designed to phase out agricultural supports, but Congress has provided three successive, multibillion-dollar bailouts of the farm economy over the past three years.

A ``countercyclical' program, in which payments would be tied to declines in crop prices and farm income, would make it easier for farmers to do financial planning each year, because they wouldn't have to predict Congress' actions, notes Combest.

He plans to begin hearings on the issue next month. The 1996 farm law expires in 2002 but Combest says he doesn't want to wait until then to develop a new subsidy program.

The Bush administration isn't likely to offer its own proposals but ``is very supportive of what we are doing,' Combest points out. USDA Secretary Ann Veneman has, so far, deflected questions about farm policy.

Getting farmers to agree on a new program will be difficult, says Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation. A payment system popular with one region or commodity may seem unfair to other producers.

One idea advanced by some Midwest lawmakers would offer growers higher federal price supports in return for agreeing not to farm part of their land.

The Agriculture Department estimates net farm income will fall 10 percent this year, or about $4.1 billion, without another package of emergency aid from Congress. Last year, farmers received $8 billion in emergency assistance from Congress, boosting net farm income for the year to $45.4 billion. Average farm income for the 1990s was $45.3 billion a year.
The Associated Press