The desperate plight of American farmers and ranchers cannot be exaggerated. The facts are so grim and the pace of economic deterioration so fast that grass-roots Republicans and Democrats alike demand immediate action from Congress and the White House.

Most agree that the primary order of business must be the expansion of U.S. food trade and aid. There is also a broad consensus that now is not the time to pull the income safety net out from under our producers. Commodity target prices must be maintained to keep farm and ranch creditors from forcing foreclosures and permit the economic survival of as many producers as possible.

This approach is the only real hope for agriculture, its creditors, thousands of Main Street businesses, and the entire rural community. It may be the only way to save the whole U.S. economy from a serious recession. There is not too much food in the world. There are only barriers to its distribution. We can overcome those barriers with a farm bill that makes effective distribution of our food abundance its central thrust.

American agricultural producers understand that this is how to get price improvement in the marketplace. They don't want target price supports to be a permanent way of life. They would much rather get their income from the marketplace. That day will come when we transfer our food abundance into expanded markets abroad.

Most, if not all, of the living former secretaries of agriculture agree. Even the current secretary, John Block, agrees in principle. Unfortunately, his efforts to expand agricultural trade have been ineffective and, indeed, often counterproductive. As a result, there have been sharp declines in U.S. food export shipments. Again and again, the Agriculture Department has delayed sales and donations because of its obsessive concern over disrupting usual marketing patterns, even though millions of hungry people need the food.

Meanwhile, for at least 18 months, the State Department has been linking food trade and aid to unrealistic ideological demands that developing countries use private businesses -- which often do not even exist -- for the procurement, processing and distribution of U.S. commodities. Kenya, Mozambique, Liberia, Guinea and a score more are sadly lacking enough private enterprise to meet the State Department's demands. The Philippines, Morocco, Mexico and another score find those demands either confusing, demeaning or patronizing and thus look for less oppressive deals elsewhere.

The plight of our agricultural producers is so critical that it cannot tolerate endless palavering over market displacement factors or the ideological bullying of customers.

We Americans have food in massive oversupply. That oversupply has crushed farm prices. We must dispose of the surpluses in order to strengthen prices, and we should dispose of them by feeding the starving and hungry overseas and the malnourished at home.

Our own needs must come first. But even here there are many church or community food banks, Salvation Army kitchens and senior citizen centers that have not been able to get food to those who need it because of red tape and snafus.

Food for Peace and Section 416 food donation programs are supposed to develop markets as well as feed the hungry. Therefore, these programs should be tied directly to expansion of commercial sales. The administration opposes this logical linkage, mistakenly arguing that it would violate general trade treaties.

Few would deny the need to dispose of surpluses by expanding markets. Yet this administration, in the face of a mounting farm crisis, is blocking and fumbling away trade opportunities. That is why the administration's farm bill was rejected by almost all agricultural organizations.

This is not to disregard federal deficits. The staggering trade imbalance contributes to federal deficits. That is precisely why increasing agricultural exports is crucial to correcting the trade imbalances, and this, in turn, will help to reduce federal deficits.