Farmers can't remain in business much longer with cash prices where they are. Most of rural America understands this. And many rural legislators do. But does the U.S. Congress give anything more than lip service to the people who feed and clothe the nation?

These were questions on the minds of farmers and business people who gathered recently at the farm of Gideon, Mo., corn and cotton producer Rick Branch, to air their concerns about the state of agriculture and discuss some possible solutions with U.S. Congresswoman Jo Ann Emerson.

"Our country can't do without farmers," said Juanita Smelser, vice president of First Commercial Bank in Gideon and an organizer of the event. "My husband and I have been out of farming since 1992. I have a son who just graduated from college who would give his eye teeth to farm. But he can't get in it. It's a shame.

"All of the farming industry is so tight, and more and more farmers are dropping out year after year," she said. "Our stand at First Commercial is that we want to go with the farmer as far as we can. We recognize the importance of the farmer in this area and we're trying to hold on with them."

Smelser said area banks are still strong. "That's not a problem. But the economy has certainly regressed. You can always tell when we've had a good farming year, when prices and crops are decent. You can tell it in the grocery stores, the furniture stores. All industry benefits from farming."

"I know that farmers are the backbone of the economy in the Bootheel," added Doran Vancil of Gideon Care Center and a Chamber of Commerce member. "If they don't make it, none of us makes it. I don't want to have to depend on any foreign government to raise our food. Somehow, we have to find a way to help our farmers."

Emerson told farmers, "We've seen prices plummet for the third year in a row to the lowest levels we've seen in 40 years, while farmers are spending 10 times as much. The rural communities are the heart and soul of this country. We want to keep them intact, keep the implement dealers, pharmacies and grocery stores working. If the agriculture community is not doing well, they aren't either."

Emerson noted that the group of legislators which had formed a rural caucus "to speak with one loud voice" on agricultural issues "is starting to make some progress. But I don't think that your Congress or the Clinton administration has done right by the American farmer. We haven't gotten our fair share of the federal dollar."

Emerson said when Freedom to Farm was implemented in 1996 during a time of high prices, farmers were also promised lower taxes, less regulation and open markets.

"We have China as an open market, which could turn into a good opportunity. But we still have six countries, Cuba, Libya, Sudan, Iran, Iraq and North Korea, $7 billion in potential markets, that we can't tap into because of unilateral sanctions. Congress hasn't done the job that farmers were told was going to happen."

Emerson noted that bills for a repeal of the death tax and a lowering of capital gains taxes are in the works and Congress has passed legislation to allow farmers to deduct 100 percent of their health insurance costs.

"But regulation by the Environmental Protection Agency and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has increased four- to five-fold. We have the issue now with total maximum daily load (restrictions for enforcing the Clean Water Act). The list goes on and on. Even some of the extremists among the environmentalists don't want us to have any kind of flood protection, to let the levees go."

Things could change with the coming election, according to Emerson. "We're not supposed to write a new farm bill until 2002. But there is precedent that when a new president comes in, a farm bill can be written early. I'm hopeful we can begin hearings early to determine exactly what we want to do with farm law. Do we keep it the same, lift the loan rates, do a set-aside?"

A few years ago, the latter might have raised a few eyebrows among growers, but on this occasion, a few farmers raised their hands when Emerson asked how many would favor reinstating set-asides.

One voluntary option on the table pegs the set-aside to the loan rate, noted Emerson. "If you set out 10 percent of your land, you would get a 10 percent increase in your loan rate. That goes all the way up to 30 percent maximum. I don't know whether or not a set-aside program will hurt our reliability to supply or cause countries like Argentina and Brazil to grab our markets. We have asked RUPRI (Rural Policy Research Institute) to look at this and see how much we could set aside before we started hurting ourselves."

Several farmers were angry that producers in South America, among our stiffest competitors for trade share, are paying less than U.S. farmers for herbicides and herbicide-resistant technology and don't have to work under the type of environmental laws in place in the United States.

Farmer Rick Branch is concerned about the dearth of new farmers entering the profession. "I'm 36 years old and I'm considered a young farmer. There's nobody else starting. I think we need to be looking down the road. Who's going to be doing this in 30 years?"

"With the economy the way it is now, we'll be hard-pressed to encourage anybody to get into farming," Emerson said, "unless we can come up with some kind of a program that can provide a safety net. No group of people takes greater risks than farmers and ranchers. One thing we're looking at is lifting the caps on the loan rates, or setting a limit, and setting a price that's reasonable."