Farmers from the South forget what it's like to drive through the Midwest and see fields of corn and soybeans stretching as far as the eye can see.

I was traveling across Iowa on an assignment recently and couldn't help but be struck by the panorama of thousands of acres of soybeans and corn interrupted only by an occasional grain elevator or ethanol plant.

It's been dry in central Iowa this summer, although the crops don't look too bad from the windshield at 75, uh, 65 miles per hour. Of course, those Iowa soils stand the drought better than some in the South.

I also felt a little paranoid traveling through the state. I almost expected one of Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley's staff members to stop me and ask to see my papers. Sen. Grassley, as most cotton and rice producers know, has become the Senate's leading advocate for stricter payment limits and a frequent subject for this column.

One of those attending a media event in Waterloo, Tom Block with the Iowa Farm Bureau, commented on the running battle between Grassley and Sun Belt farmers and Farm Press.

Block told a group of us at dinner that no more than eight farmers in Iowa would be impacted by payment limits most years. I doubt the number is that small, but I didn't want to challenge a fellow journalist's numbers when I was enjoying a meal of Iowa beef.

Instead, I noted Iowa typically ranks first in the total number of farm program payments received by any one state and that Iowans, thus, have just as much at stake in a fair and equitable farm bill as growers in the Sun Belt.

You don't have to drive far and see the farm houses that dot the landscape to realize Iowa has many smaller producers who receive direct payments and use the marketing loan to help weather low commodity prices and high input costs.

Whether many Iowans ever reach the current or the $250,000 per farmer payment limit Sen. Grassley proposes, farm program payments will remain an important part of the Iowa farm economy for years to come.

That's why Grassley, as Senate Finance Committee chairman, has refused to consider a WTO agreement that would reduce U.S. farm program payments unless other countries agree to open their markets enough to compensate for the income loss for U.S. producers. Fortunately, U.S. negotiators have adopted the same stance.

Driving through Iowa, the Mississippi Delta, east Tennessee and the San Joaquin Valley of California this year, I've had the opportunity to see the grandeur and the scope of American agriculture up close. We have far too much at stake to simply bargain any of it away at the WTO.

Note: Mississippi Farm Bureau President David Waide passed along this quote from an American Farm Bureau member who was being interviewed on CNN about farm programs: “If you like imported oil, you'll love imported food.”