Without "substantial inprovement" in market prices, U.S. crop producers will continue to need government assistance in order to maintain income levels," ranking House Agriculture Committee member Charles Stenholm, D-Texas, said at another in a series of national hearings aimed at providing a comprehensive review of federal farm policy.

"The responsible course of action for Congress is to develop a continuous program to meet the needs of U.S. agriculture," he said at the Washington session.

Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman, in remarks a few days later at the U.S. Agricultureal Communicators Congress, predicted the government will continue to direct billions of dollars to aid programs for farmers because the country's food system would be endangered if too many producers were to be forced out of business because of low prices. "We just have to accept it," he said, noting "it's part of supporting a basic industry in America - we do the same with the national defense budget.

"In the long-term," Glickman said, "I think the vagaries and instability of agriculture will require us to keep some level of support. We should not be ashamed of providing assistance to farmers."

At the House hearing, committee chairman Larry Combest, R-Texas, said the "unique and severe problems facing agriculture" demonstrate that "a single, simple solution won't suddenly appear before us, and it is important that we all fundamentally believe that it is in the best interests of this nation to maintain and foster a diverse, strong agriculture for the future."

Participants in the hearing expressed continued support for the flexibility given to producers under the 1996 Freedom to Farm legislation, but noted that three consecutive years of depressed commodity prices have shown the necessity for providing counter-cyclical aid to producers and for government efforts to expand international trade and other marketing programs.

"Farmers and ranchers face not only the unique economic risks associated with agriculture, but also weather conditions completely beyond their control," COmbest said. Beginning last January, our committee turned its attention to developing a better safety net for weather-related and similar risks."

While he said he has been pleased with the bipartisan spirit that led to the passage of legislation to improve federal crop insurance, he said the need now is to "focus on the economic side of the safety net and to build a similar consensus that will ultimately lead us to a comprehensive farm policy that provides protection for the many risks our producers face."