If it weren't for one little thing, many Southern farmers might consider Charles Grassley a model senator. Just the other day, the Iowa Republican wrote in his weekly newspaper column that Congress should increase the tax credit for ethanol and other renewable energy resources to help reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil.

Last month, he re-introduced a package of tax relief measures that would authorize new FFARM accounts in which farmers could contribute up to 20 percent of their income to a farmer savings account and deduct it in the same year. The latest issue of the AARP Bulletin quotes Grassley, who chairs the Senate Finance Committee, as saying he would “go quite a bit further than the president's plan” in writing a new prescription drug benefit program for Medicare recipients who are having to spend large chunks of their income on prescription drugs.

You don't have to look at Grassley's Website very long to realize that here is an activist senator who is delving into a number of issues to try to represent the interests of his constituents and of farmers in other parts of the country.

But as much good as he may do, it's difficult for Southern growers to get past Grassley's dogged determination to apply tighter limits on farm program payments.

Grassley co-authored the Grassley-Dorgan payment limits amendment that was included in the Senate version but omitted from the farm bill conference report Congress passed last spring. Last month, he included a provision in the Senate version of the 2004 Budget Resolution that would transfer $1.38 billion in savings made possible from tighter payment limits to the new Conservation Security Program. Then, he introduced new legislation that would cap farm program payments at $300,000 per farmer.

Why is the senator so intent on passing legislation that could put a sizable percentage of Southern row crop farmers out of business? Grassley provided four reasons to Inside Washington Today's Jim Wiesemeyer. Well, three reasons — all familiar to Southern growers — and a possible benefit if the legislation passes.

Grassley said the lack of limitations on marketing loan gains allows “big farmers to get bigger” by enabling them to raise the rental bids for land on neighboring farms. Where have we heard that before?

Uncapped farm program payments, he said, get bid into land prices so that farm program benefits wind up in the hands of landowners rather than farmers. Thus, they raise production costs at a time when farmers are faced with growing foreign competition.

Third, unlimited farm payments remove incentives for larger farmers to become more efficient or better market crops.

While all three show Grassley has little understanding of larger, commercial-sized farming operations, the last is especially telling. Southern farmers have been forced to become better managers because of the economic realities of cotton and rice farming. Sen. Grassley has been told this, but he chooses not to understand it or doesn't want to believe it because it would interfere with his agenda. That's unfortunate because this issue may be the only thing standing between a good senator and a great senator.


e-mail: flaws@primediabusiness.com.