Now that Congress is back in session, one of its first items of business is a relief package for American agriculture.

Before the August recess, the Senate completed work on a measure to assist farmers. It's part of the agriculture appropriations bill for the budget year that begins Oct. 1. The House had earlier passed an appropriations bill for agriculture, but it did not address the current farm crisis with any type of short-term assistance. A House-Senate conference is likely to convene soon to begin reconciling the two bills.Most people might think the need for such relief for agriculture was resolved in 1996, when the current farm law - the Federal Agriculture Improvement and Reform Act, or FAIR - was passed. Under that legislation, farmers receive a declining annual payment for the seven-year life of the law to help them make the transition from a government-supported program to a market-oriented program.

FAIR, often referred to as ''Freedom to Farm,'' decouples farm program benefits from plantings and permits farmers a high degree of cropping flexibility.

In theory, the idea had some strength. As a cotton farmer, I don't like being reliant on government support. I favor the freedom to respond to the market. I like the flexibility to plant alternative crops.

The law provided me with some new possibilities in managing my land, and I am responsibly trying to manage the associated risks.

Prices for most commodities were relatively high when the FAIR Act was passed and, with world population continuing to grow, it looked like there was substantial opportunity to export what U.S. consumers didn't use. The absence of a safety net was our biggest concern in the debate over FAIR, however.

Initially, cotton farmers fared reasonably well under FAIR. Cotton and other crop prices remained fairly strong. As long as cotton prices on the New York market were above the mid-60 cents per pound, farmers tended to do better under FAIR than under the target price concept in previous law.

Our earlier safety net concerns became reality, though, when New York prices fell below the mid-60 cent level. International and domestic cotton prices were seriously depressed in 1998 and again this year.

U.S. prices have hit a 14-year low and are well below production costs.

What couldn't be seen at the time FAIR became law was the collapse of economies in Southeast Asia, an oversupply of cotton and other commodities in the world, and record imports of cheaply produced cotton textiles and apparel into this country. These came mainly from Southeast Asia, where there were few buyers because of the economic problems.

The imports knocked the props from under the domestic textile industry, leading to a decline in demand for our product.

Some would argue that changes are needed in FAIR to get the safety net back into U.S. agriculture to make us competitive against foreign producers that are heavily subsidized by their governments.

I think most cotton producers would agree that farm policy needs a careful review, but not at this point. Passing the agriculture relief assistance program should be Congress' first priority before it attempts to make any long-term adjustments to law.

Cotton, and all of agriculture, needs an emergency assistance package now. Agriculture is our nation's No. 1 industry and contributes enormously to our economy, producing a stable supply of food and fiber.

The production and processing of cotton alone, for example, employs more than 440,000 Americans. U.S. cotton, its suppliers and customers account for one out of every 13 U.S. jobs.

The $7.8 billion Senate package that was added to the agriculture appropriations bill for the fiscal year beginning Oct. 1 would provide meaningful short-term assistance to our vital agriculture sector, one that is ailing from a combination of factors over which it has no control.

It is imperative for the House and Senate to reconcile differences quickly and deliver timely relief to America's farmers and ranchers.

From my perspective, several components are absolutely essential in the final package that Congress will approve:

* Reinstatement of funding for Step Two of cotton's competitiveness program, with benefits available in cash or certificates.

* A substantial increase in supplemental income payments.

* A modification of current limitations on the marketing loan program so that commercial-size farmers can market their commodities rather than forfeit them to the federal government.

For the full story: Log In, Register for Free or Subscribe