The production practices of those cotton farmers filing loss claims under the federal crop insurance program may be examined more closely in 2001 than in any previous year, according to insurance agent Pete Dunn of Dunn, Marley and Harris in Clarksdale, Miss.

"There will be more scrutiny in the year 2001 than farmers have ever had before," says Dunn. "Everyone is going to be looking closely at the farmers this year to make sure we don't have any people that are trying to take advantage of the program."

In a year when both traditional and non-traditional cotton farmers are relying on cotton and the crop insurance program to sustain their operations through a depressed farm economy, Dunn says it is more important than ever to set realistic crop budgets.

Mid-South growers have until Feb. 28 to sign up for federal crop insurance coverage.

Cotton farmers insuring their crops this year must agree to farm in a "husbandry-like manner." What that means, Dunn says, is spending $300 to $350 per acre to bring cotton to harvest. "If a farmer puts only $150 dollars per acre of input costs into his cotton crop, yields 250 pounds of lint per acre, and then makes a claim, he will not collect on the crop insurance policy," he says. "You are going to have to spend money on this crop to farm it properly and be able to decline to 3.8 cents per pound.

"I did not support the 1996 farm bill," she said. "I did not feel that it had all the components it needed to be successful. I don't have a problem with giving our farmers more flexibility. But we also need to give them the support they need, not only on trade issues but with programs that improve profitability."

Lincoln, whose family has farmed near Helena in the Arkansas Delta for seven generations, said nothing is set in stone as the evenly divided Senate and the House with its slim Republican majority try to get down to the business of resolving issues.

"Don't take that to the bank quite yet, because nothing is guaranteed in Washington," she said. "But I can assure you that farm-state senators like myself will be pushing for providing the assistance our farmers need to stay in business."

Longer-term, she said, she and her colleagues must take a "deep look" at new farm legislation.

"Chairman Combest of the House Ag Committee has taken the first step toward this process, calling for hearings on agricultural policy that will begin in February," she said. (The first hearings were scheduled for Feb. 14 and 15.)

"Without a doubt the farm bill has not been as productive as we would like, not only for producers, but for us in the government," said Lincoln, who in 1998 became the youngest woman ever elected to the U.S. Senate.

"We spent more in the last three years for disaster payments than we ever spent before," she noted. "We need to change that, to give farmers something they can depend on and that they know they can take to the bank. I've said before that farmers need to know what they can expect from the federal government at the beginning of the year, not at the middle of the year or the end."

Watching and waiting as Congress turns the disaster package into a hodge-podge at Christmas is not productive for agriculture, she said. "You have to be able to go to that banker with a business plan in hand and say `this is what I'm going to do and this is what I expect from Washington.'"

Responding to a question from the audience, Lincoln said she continues to favor easing payment limitations on all farmers, but especially those from the Southern tier of states.

"It is really hard for me to translate to my Midwestern colleagues on the Agriculture Committee and in the Congress in general that cotton and rice - our major crops in the Sunbelt - are capital-intensive crops," she said.

"You make a large investment when you plant cotton - you're not just broadcasting wheat seed out in a field somewhere. You make a huge investment in energy, for example, and in herbicides and pesticides."

She noted that the Commission on 21st Century Agriculture, which issued its report on Jan. 30, was calling for lifting of caps on farm program payments.

"We have fought that fight, and we spend a lot of time to make sure that people understand that the way that we farm and the crops that we farm are completely different in terms of that capital intensity and the investments that we make and the limb you have to walk out on," she said.

"I think we have an opportunity in the new farm bill to make some changes, particularly in light of the 21st Century Agriculture Commission's recommendations."

Lincoln also discussed her farm background and the reasons she decided to enter politics after growing up on an Arkansas cotton, rice and soybean farm and "scouting cotton in the summers."

She also autographed copies of a book she co-authored,

Nine and Counting, about the increase in the number of women in the U.S. Senate. Prior to 1992, the Senate never had more than two women members at the same time. Following the 2000 elections, there are now 13 women in the Senate.