A decade ago, the agricultural economy was floundering, and government payments to the production sector added up to $1.4 billion in Nebraska and 97 percent of net farm income.

By 2010, as prices for corn, soybeans and other crops soared, payments dropped to 8 percent of farm income.

In 2011, the man offering that comparison is among those who favor doing away with the $350 million in taxpayer money still flowing to the state's farmers as direct payments, despite continuing prosperity and bulging budget deficits.

"Let's look at the long run," said Bruce Johnson, an agricultural economist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, "and these direct payments are not a sustainable part of farm policy."

Johnson weighed in as proposed cuts to agricultural appropriations dominated debate in the House of Representatives Tuesday and Wednesday.

A Tuesday plan that might have cut $5 billion in direct payments nationally by as much as $167 million was cast aside, even as House lawmakers agreed to cut food aid for low-income mothers and children by $685 million, the Associated Press reported.

Johnson offered his blunt assessment of that approach. "It's a pretty big embarrassment, I believe, to the agricultural community, to see this $5 billion payment going out in a year when production agriculture, except for flooded areas, is experiencing record income."

He made a similar point in a recent Cornhusker Economics analysis circulated by the Department of Agricultural Economics, saying checks still were being issued to farmers "when there is no economic reason to do so."

Congressman Jeff Fortenberry, a member of the House Agriculture Committee, said that sort of reasoning eventually might prevail.

It's already clear that "direct payments will be closely scrutinized, probably reduced, and maybe eliminated."

But Fortenberry said any action of that kind should come in writing the 2012 farm bill and not as a result of wrangling this week between the House Appropriations Committee and other House lawmakers.

Johnson sees no reason to wait. In fact, he thinks waiting could weaken public support for the safety net in the next multi-year farm bill.

Agriculture should step up to the plate now "and expect others to do the same," he said, "rather than guarding everything you've got and hoping that somebody else's entitlement will get hit.

"And this is an entitlement," he added, "and the word 'entitlement' needs to be dealt with here. It's not a right."

While vigorous House debate suggests he's not the only advocate for immediate action, the president of the state's largest farm organization isn't persuaded.

"Direct payments are part of the 2008 farm bill," said Keith Olsen of the Nebraska Farm Bureau Federation, "and we, as an organization, do not support re-opening the 2008 farm bill.

"We will have a new farm bill written in 2012," Olsen said, "and, at that time, everything will be pretty much on the table. And that's when that discussion should be had."

In his opinion, using annual agricultural appropriations to zap direct payments "would be breaking the contract that farmers have with the federal government."

The Iowa Farm Bureau Federation is among organizations on record as favoring quicker action and halting direct payments.

Fortenberry noted the House appeared poised to cut discretionary spending for agriculture, a category that does not include direct payments, by as much as 13 percent next year.

"I think the definitive action will be tomorrow," he said, referring to Thursday. "I think we'll see that probably pass the House. A lot of rural members from farm states will have to swallow pretty hard."

He expects farmers to be agreeable to cuts. "They know what needs to be done to get the financial house in order."

He also said the House is positioned to increase overall spending on food and nutrition by $7 billion.

Sought out earlier, Nebraska U.S. Sens. Mike Johanns and Ben Nelson said crop insurance is an increasingly valuable alternative to government payments as a way of cushioning farmers against risk.

But Nelson said crop insurance isn't enough for weather situations as severe as the multi-year drought that hit large parts of Nebraska in the early 2000s.

Nor does Nelson want to intervene on overall agricultural spending in a way that diminishes long-term food security. "If you like importing 60 percent of your oil," he said, "you'll love importing 60 percent of your food."

Johanns said farm groups prone to arguing with each other need to set those arguments aside for the sake of sound farm policy.

If that doesn't happen, "we could lose funding for direct payments, get none of it in crop insurance, and end up with further efforts to weaken the crop insurance program. And, for farmers, that would be a really bad deal."

Fortenberry and Nelson said tighter limits on how much farmers can earn and still qualify for direct payments deserve more consideration.

"Those payment limitations, in my view, should be stricter," Fortenberry said.

Reach Art Hovey at 402-473-7223 or at ahovey@journalstar.com.