The party affiliation of Rep. Richard K. Armey of Texas was incorrect in yesterday's editions. He is a Republican. (Published 7/24/ 90)

Five years of activism on behalf of American farmers have put a frown on the grandfatherly face of singer Willie Nelson: Since his first Farm Aid concert in 1985, the United States has lost 400,000 farmers.

"Obviously," he concluded, the 1985 farm bill "was the wrong bill." But unfortunately, he added, the 1990 farm bill is even worse.

"This is a bill that's not helping our family farmers," Nelson told a National Press Club news conference last week. "Why is this farm bill even being discussed?"

For Willie Nelson and the small farmers he is trying to protect, no farm bill will ever be enough. But for many others, the 1985 bill was a success: Production is up, exports are booming and aggregate farm income has never been higher. There are fewer farmers, but they're making more money. The 1990 bill holds hopes for more of the same.

Still, the farm bill is enormous, unwieldy and incomprehensible to almost everyone except the House and Senate mandarins who drafted it. It is the product of hundreds of compromises, each one of which seems to have added dozens of paragraphs to texts that already exceed 1,000 pages.

Debate on the 1990 version of the bill -- which every five years sets out the government's programs and policies for the nation's farmers -- began in the Senate last Thursday and will start in the House today. In all, Congress is expected to examine more than 100 amendments on issues from the ideology of farm programs to the kinds of pesticides the United States can sell in foreign countries.

Both chambers expect -- optimis- tically -- to finish by the end of the week.

The bill tells how much taxpayers will spend on subsidies and other farm programs for the next five years, suggesting that $53 billion to $54 billion will do the job. Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) cautiously described it as "a good bill." The ranking Republican committee member, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), deemed it "a reasonably good bill" that is "worthy of our support."

Others were not so charitable. Agriculture Secretary Clayton Yeutter said the Senate version of the bill was $5 billion too high and hinted that President Bush would veto it unless the price tag crept lower.

By week's end, Leahy and Lugar had pried $3.5 billion out of it, but this, Senate Minority Leader Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) said, was not enough, given the ongoing budget summit.

"Let's be realistic," Dole warned Friday. "Further cuts are around the corner." He threatened to submit a substitute bill if his colleagues didn't reduce spending still further.

The House fared slightly better. Bush's Office of Management and Budget Thursday threatened a veto, but a Yeutter letter the following day did not. Yeutter did mention, however, that the administration thought the House bill was too high by $6.5 billion.

"I don't know where {the Office of Management and} Budget is coming from," said House Agriculture Committee Chairman E "Kika" de la Garza (D-Tex.). "If they think we're too high, they need to take basic arithmetic again. Until I hear from the president, I have to assume we're compatible with the budget."

Republican free traders have never liked generous farm subsidies, a cornerstone of the New Deal, and the Bush administration's capitalist posture has gained greater force as socialism sinks deeper into international disgrace.

But it is the budget, not ideology, that has converted de la Garza, Leahy and many other Democrats, as well as farm-state Republicans such as Dole. Still, some congressional populists remain unconvinced. Willie Nelson's approach has its champions, too.

During the debate, these mavericks of the left will attempt to increase price supports and subsidies and link them to the cost of living. All of these strategies failed in committee, but this will not prevent fresh efforts:

"Does this bill mean an improvement in farm income? Does it distribute benefits more fairly?" asked Sen. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) when the debate opened Thurs- day. "No, it fails on both


The bill also will have to contend with another kind of maverick -- anti-bureaucrats interested in weakening or dismembering what they deem to be "sweetheart" programs held hostage by lobbyists and other special interests.

The Senate routed the first of these amendments Thursday, voting 66 to 30 to kill a measure that would have excluded from all subsidy programs those farmers with gross sales of $500,000 or more.

But there are other initiatives in the works. Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) Friday introduced an amendment to reduce the sugar support price from 18 cents to 16 cents, attacking "a few sugar producers {who} pocket huge profits."

U.S. sugar policy, he said, "hurts the American farmer. . . plays havoc with the environment. . . {and} counters American policy goals."

The sugar war will also be fought on the House floor, one of several amendments promoted by a liberal-conservative coalition headed by Reps. Richard K. Armey (D-Tex.) and Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). Besides sugar, the coalition will offer amendments on peanuts, wool and mohair, and agricultural export assistance and guarantees.

In both houses, these measures could find powerful friends. Republican Senate sources said Lugar, who has publicly denounced the sugar program on several occasions, will vote for the Bradley amendment.

Less confrontational than the maverick amendments, but just as important to the farm bill's ultimate shape, are efforts by environmentalists to harden its conservation, pesticide and herbicide provisions.

Environmental groups have found sponsors for a half-dozen amendments that will enhance record-keeping requirements for pesticide use, reshape soil conservation requirements and establish guidelines for labeling organically grown food. The environmentalists also will try to block Senate efforts to weaken "circle of poison" regulations prohibiting the export of domestically banned pesticides.

During the long months drafting the farm bill, environmentalists managed to forge working relationships with the agriculture committees, particularly in the Senate.

"My general sense is that it's been much more civil and productive than anticipated," said Ken Cook of the Center for Resource Economics. "Of course, when all this gets on the floor, things may change."