The popular press might lead you to believe Democrats and Republicans are no more alike than cats and dogs. Where agricultural issues are concerned, however, the major party presidential candidates often sound like they're reading from the same page. Here's a brief summary of where Vice President Al Gore and Texas Governor George W. Bush stand on key ag issues.

Freedom to Farm: "The so-called Freedom to Farm bill was very successful in offering producers greater freedom of action by dispensing with many Depression-era regulations governing what producers could plant," says Gore. "However, by also dismantling the counter-cyclical payment structure that protected farmers from price collapses, the 1996 act allowed for the kind of crisis we are currently facing. That is why I will continue to propose changes to the 1996 act."

Bush says, "The 1996 Farm Bill reversed decades of supply control management, and unleashed U.S. farmers to plant in response to market demand, not government programs. As we continue to move toward market-driven production, I believe the government should help farmers adapt to a global marketplace by providing them with a strong safety net and the means to manage the cyclical downturns in the farm economy."

Safety net: Gore maintains long-term U.S. farm policy should be based on counter-cyclical income assistance that attempts to stabilize farm income on a year-to-year basis.

"America's farmers and ranchers are hurting badly and need help now," he says. "As president, I'll fix the safety net that protects farm income and push to expand markets and improve prices."

Bush favors emergency disaster relief, both through direct payments to farmers and through crop insurance reform.

"We must get farmers the emergency assistance they need in the form of direct payments," he says. "And, unlike last year's emergency aid, the help must come in time to meet the emergency."

Crop insurance: Gore says the government must make crop insurance more affordable, extend coverage to livestock and crops not currently insured, and enhance coverage for catastrophic losses.

Bush points out that only 60% of cultivated land presently is covered, while some crops and livestock aren't covered at all. Where coverage is available, the government's premium structure can make adequate coverage unaffordable, he says. He wants to cover more crops and make crop insurance more affordable.

Foreign trade: Gore favors China's admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO), wants to emphasize expansion of U.S. ag exports and says food should be exempt from sanctions against rogue nations. "Food should not be used as a weapon."

Bush also favors China's admission to the WTO and wants to emphasize agriculture in future rounds of trade negotiations. Like Gore, he favors exempting food from sanctions. "We are too good a people to use food as a weapon."

Estate taxes: Gore favors further estate-tax relief. "Agriculture is a capital-intensive industry, so farmers and ranchers can be affected disproportionately by estate taxes."

Bush wants the death tax eliminated. "Estate taxes can destroy family-owned farms, ranches and small businesses," he says.

Environment: Gore favors financial incentives for farmers to voluntarily practice environmentally sound land management. "In addition to providing the public with better natural resources - such as productive soil, clean waterways, pure drinking water and healthy air - these programs also stabilize farm income for farmers suffering from low commodity prices," says Gore.

Bush supports efforts to ensure clean air and water. At the same time, he says he recognizes that burdensome regulations have a "real cost impact" on the farm economy. He believes regulations "should be based on sound science and common sense."

Biotechnology/technological innovation: Gore wants government funding for more biotechnology research, and pledges to battle foreign trade barriers based on "fear and protectionism," an apparent reference to the European ban on America's genetically modified crops. He also favors the use of ethanol and proposes further scientific research and tax incentives to promote its use.

Bush supports biotechnology development and condemns the European ban on biotech imports. "I will not stand for unfair trade barriers and that is what these objections to our biotech crops really are."

He also favors tax incentives for using ethanol.

What do farmers need most from the next president and Congress? Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, says the No. 1 goal is to level the playing field in world markets. To do that, he says, producers need three things:

* Elimination of foreign trade barriers.

* Control of regulatory costs so that American products aren't priced out of overseas markets.

* A temporary safety net for producers hit by events beyond their control, such as weather-related crop losses and economic collapse in important foreign markets. This would keep farmers afloat so that they won't lose ground to foreign competitors.

Farmers would be between a hard place and a rock if they had to depend on voting strength to influence Congress. After all, there aren't that many farmers left.

Agriculture's political ace-in-the-hole is the voting public's continuing affection for the people who produce our food.

"Studies show people still care about farmers and ranchers," says Dana Hoag, Colorado State University ag economist and author of Agricultural Crisis in America. "That's why Congress came up with emergency relief in recent years rather than letting farmers suffer the whims of the market under Freedom to Farm."

Which party is better for farmers? The answer may depend on the state of the farm economy. There will be times when the Republicans serve up what farmers want most, and times when the Democrats have the winning recipe.

For example, the Republicans usually want market orientation, while the Democrats are much more likely to favor market intervention, says Hoag.