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Worsening conditions alter Delta landscape

When I first joined Farm Press more than 20 years ago, I was driving an older car that was prone to breakdowns. One day as I was traveling on Mississippi Highway 1, the car overheated.

I pulled into a combination store and gas station at Deeson in Bolivar County. The owner came out, hosed down my radiator, filled it up with water and antifreeze and sent me on my way to Clarksdale, 25 miles to the north.

If someone had car problems along that stretch of Highway 1 today, they would be out of luck. The store is no longer there. Deeson has joined countless other Delta towns like neighboring Waxhaw and Hillhouse that have either disappeared or become shadows of themselves.

The trend in rural communities mirrors what's been happening on the farm. Since the devastating drought of 1980, growers have struggled with long stretches of dry weather and bad markets interrupted by brief periods of higher prices. The resulting economic conditions have taken their toll on small towns everywhere.

Against that background, the Senate's Aug. 3 vote to go along with the House version of the fiscal 2001 emergency assistance legislation may seem like a minor blip. Although it won't be as much as many farm organizations' had hoped, farmers will receive a supplemental AMTA payment by Sept. 30.

Until the morning of Aug. 3, when the Senate decided to take up the House version of the bill, that was not a sure thing. Senate Democrats were adamant that farmers needed more money because the economic situation in 2001 is worse than in 2000 for most farmers.

But the House had already adjourned, making it impossible for the two chambers to set up a conference committee to resolve the differences in the bill until Congress returned in September. By then, many observers felt, it would have been too late to make use of whatever funding was passed in this fiscal year.

The House bill will provide cotton farmers, for example, about a cent per pound less than the Senate version. National Cotton Council staff members said the bill's $85 million for additional cottonseed assistance will almost make up the difference.

“We would like to have had the 1999 rate (7.88 cents vs. 6.7 cents), and the $100 million for cottonseed rather than the $85 million,” said Craig Brown, the council's vice president for producer affairs. “But growers are happy to get what they did. Now we go on and work on the farm bill or more funding for next year.”

House Republicans and administration officials seemed to be feeling pretty good about the ag situation as Congress began its August recess. The House Ag Committee got a start on the new farm bill and the House leadership held the line on the ag budget as the president had requested.

Whether they are as happy when they return in September depends on what they hear from their constituents over the August recess. One thing's for certain. There won't be as many of those as there were 10 years ago. And, if the current trend continues, there will be even fewer next year.

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