The "Freedom to Farm" bill was supposed to usher in a new era of agriculture, weaning farmers from government assistance and allowing them to test new markets.
Five years later, government subsidies to farmers have skyrocketed, farm income for many small- and medium-sized farm operations has plummeted and the package known as freedom to farm has picked up a string of nicknames, such as "Freedom to Fail," and the "Failure to Farm Act.''
The question is, what happened?
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., shepherded the freedom to farm law through Congress in 1996 when he was chairman of the House Agriculture Committee.
The law overhauled the Depression-era system of production controls and price supports. Farmers were guaranteed payments that would decline through 2002 and allowed to plant whatever they wanted without the threat of losing government subsidies.
But it hasn't worked, and Congress has had to step in several times to approve several multibillion dollar emergency assistance packages for farmers.
Roberts has blamed the Clinton administration, saying it failed to open up enough foreign markets. Republicans also have cited Clinton's vetoes of tax breaks and the downturn in the Asian economy.
But many family farm groups have said the Freedom to Farm bill simply allowed farming corporations to get bigger. Smaller farmers couldn't compete because of low commodity prices and they were gobbled are up by the large operators, they say.
"Freedom to Farm has been a boon to the multinational corporations," said Malcolm Moore, an area farmer whose family has been farming in Kansas since before statehood. Moore received $65,463 in government subsidies from 1996 through 2000, but he says the system that allows huge, profitable corporations to receive subsidies is "ridiculous and obscene."
Congress is in the middle of an extensive revision of farm and conservation programs that will expire next year, and Roberts is in the thick of it.
An amendment to the Senate Democratic farm bill currently in Congress is being offered by Roberts and Sen. Thad Cochran, R-Miss. It also has the support of the Bush administration.
But family farm groups and environmentalists are vehemently opposed to the Cochran-Roberts amendment, saying it favors the massive, factory farms and would eliminate a new conservation program, proposed by Democrats, and weaken several traditional conservation programs.
Democratic Senate leaders have scheduled votes this week for their farm plan.