The Senate and House of Representatives have passed sharply differing versions of a new farm bill but both would continue substantial farm price subsidies, which are vital for the vast majority of American farmers.

This reverses the Republican Freedom to Farm Bill enacted in 1996, which called for the ending of all farm price subsidies by 2002. That law was such a disaster that farmers called it “Freedom to Fail.”

Last summer the agriculture committees of both the House and Senate held field hearings. At the same time, farm organizations held rallies to voice that farmers had to have continuing subsidies for mere survival.

The chair of the House Agriculture Committee, Rep. Larry Combest (R-Texas), fashioned a bill that would continue for 10 years massive farm subsidies for the biggest and most affluent operators. It was quickly approved last fall.

Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee, drafted a version that was approved this month. It elicited extraordinary praise from the National Catholic Rural Life Association, long known for its support for the needs of rural America.

“Thanks to all for a generous effort for the common good, for the integrity of creation and for solidarity,” the organization’s statement said.

The statement praised Harkin’s innovative shift of billions of dollars in cash subsidies for storable crops to cash awards for good stewardship of the land, including conservation measures such as protecting the soil from erosion and the air and water from pollution.

Of course, it is well known that family farmers are usually good conservationists, since they so often hope to pass their productive farm along to their children. This is the first time they will be receiving payments for their husbandry.

If the Senate bill becomes law, there will be an annual saving of $1.3 billion over past costs of subsidies. The Senate proposal is to apply the full savings to increase the budget for food stamps by $2 billion and restore these benefits to immigrants.

Other provisions of the Senate bill would prohibit meat packers from owning cattle or hogs for more than two weeks before slaughter. The purpose is to stop a recent trend by packers who buy many thousands of animals and concentrate them in feedlots creating the danger of disease outbreaks. Entire regions near these feedlots suffer from heavy pollution, a hazard of “industrial” agriculture.

There now remain two hurdles before the farm bill can become law. The first is the meeting of the House and Senate conferees to iron out the differences between the two versions. Sen. Harkin hopes this process can be completed early in March.

Another major provision in both House and Senate bills limits the amount of subsidy allowable for any one farm. In the past there has been no effective limit. This has meant that there have been subsidies for single giant farming operations of up to $1 million. These megafarms are mostly cotton farms in Texas and rice farms in Arkansas and Louisiana. Last year less than 20 percent of farms receiving subsidies collected 70 percent of the total outlay.

These megafarm operators were horrified that Harkin’s version limits subsidies for a single farm to $275,000. The House proposal raises this limit to $550,000.

Finally there remains the action President Bush may take. Saying there was no threat of a Bush veto, the Houston Chronicle quoted the president as saying, “I am committed to sound farm policy that supports American farmers and ranchers and am disappointed that the Senate passed a bill does not get the job done.”

To this Sen. Harkin replied, “Farmers are bleeding right now. The problems are now, not eight years in the future.”