The restructuring of housing loans is thought to be a way to help millions of Americans to stay in their homes that are threatened with foreclosure. But those of us in agriculture ask, ‘Where is the assistance to family farmers, with both land and houses, who also need loan assistance and loan restructuring?’ This has been a glaring oversight in the congressional debate.

Like most Americans, farmers are suffering from the economic downturn. As we enter the 2009 growing season, prices for farm products continue to decrease, while the cost of producing a crop increases. To complicate matters, farmers depend on credit to operate but with stricter credit regulations, it is harder and more expensive to get loans. Because farmers are often required to list their home as security against their loan, those who fall behind in their payments face losing not just their farm operation, but their home as well.

For 41 years, from our office in South Georgia, we at the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund have provided a wide range of assistance to farmers including marketing, technical assistance and alternative financing. Yet, we have never seen a time like this when our assistance alone may not be enough to keep many farmers on the land, especially small farmers and farmers of color. The current crisis is compounded by the fact that farmers in most of the South have suffered from years of drought and most do not have irrigation.

To make matters worse, farmers who have loans with banks are extremely vulnerable because under the current rules those banks are less likely to renegotiate delinquent loans. This is why the Treasury Department must include in their implementation of the Economic Emergency Stabilization Act (EESA, formerly known as TARP) a provision that would assist farmers.

The Treasury secretary should include in the rules that banks that have EESA money, and hold mortgages on farms, be required to restructure loans for farmers who are at least 60 days delinquent. This would be similar to the congressional mandate of 1987 that requires the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency to offer loan restructuring to farmers who qualify and are delinquent.

Assisting farmers will also save money for banks and the government. In fact, the enactment of the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987 saved farms and taxpayers money because when this restructuring for farmers’ loans took place it cost the government less than either foreclosure or bankruptcy.

We depend on our farmers and ranchers for a safe, affordable and plentiful food supply. For that reason they are invaluable. But farmers also create jobs, revive and strengthen local economies, support local churches, serve on civic and community boards and committees, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, protect our natural resources and increase our national security. In other words, farmers are the catalyst for keeping rural communities and our nation strong. When they fail, the community struggles to survive.

Farmers are often considered our first line of defense. Whenever there’s a crisis, farmers are expected to grow food regardless. So it is to the nation’s benefit that during these difficult economical times, or any time for that matter, all care is taken to insure that not one more family farmer is lost.

Shirley Sherrod is the Georgia director of the Federation of Southern Cooperatives/Land Assistance Fund. This article was distributed by the American Forum.