Farm industry trade groups are lobbying Congress for billions of dollars in short-term aid for farmers hard hit by weak demand and low prices.

The National Farmers Union on Tuesday proposed a $16 billion plan. Earlier this month the American Farm Bureau Federation outlined its own $14 billion proposal.

"Congress can't afford to sidestep this issue any longer," said NFU president Leland Swanson. "We will pay too high a price if they fail to act immediately."

Agricultural lenders say relief is needed because farmers might otherwise struggle to repay their loans.

"Over the past several months there's been a slowdown in loan repayments by farmers, and the amount of past-due loans that borrowers have has risen," said Mark Scanlan, director of agricultural affairs at the Independent Community Bankers of America.

Farmers' problems began when the Asian financial crisis diminished demand for U.S. farm commodities. To counter lower prices, farmers increased output, which forced prices even lower, said Jim Caspary, president of First National Bank of Clifton in Clifton, Ill.

In June, leaders of more than 20 farming and banking groups met with White House Chief of Staff John Podesta to outline concerns about the agricultural industry. The farm groups told Mr. Podesta that farmers needed $6 billion to $8 billion of relief.

That the new requests are much higher should underline the situation's gravity, Mr. Scanlan said.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., has already proposed a $9.4 billion bill for agricultural relief, but it is questionable whether Congress will act on a relief package before the August recess.

Instead, legislators may wait until fall, when harvest numbers become available.

"It's going to be a long, hot summer for the agricultural industry," said John M. Blanchfield, manager of the agricultural bankers division at the American Bankers Association. Still, he said he is confident that relief is coming.

"I don't know how much or when, but there will be some," he said.

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