When Congress returns to work next month, lawmakers need to improve a farm bill by modernizing the way taxpayers subsidize crops.

The $286 billion farm bill approved by the Senate preserves many outdated rules and overcompensates big corporate farms, not the family farm of lore. Five crops in about 30 congressional districts receive a major chunk of the subsidies. More than half the aid goes to large, commercial agribusinesses.

What began as a Depression-era safety net for the nation's breadbasket has grown into a corporate welfare program for some of the richest agricultural producers. About 10 percent of the nation's farms receive 75 percent of the subsidies.

Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D., N.J.) has a smart plan aimed at fixing the inequities. His proposal would eliminate agricultural subsidies for commodity crops like corn, soybeans, cotton and wheat. Instead, it would create a crop-loss insurance program, ensuring that all farmers could recoup up to 85 percent of the cost of their lost harvests.

Under the current law, growers of fruits and vegetables - which account for most of New Jersey's crops - can't receive subsidies. Lautenberg's proposal would save billions of dollars wasted in part through incentives that reward farmers who plant on unproductive land.

The Senate bill allocates more than $5 billion for "permanent disaster relief." In other words, the checks keep coming no matter what happens.

The House version of the farm bill isn't much better. It provides subsidies for single farmers who earn up to $1 million, or farm couples who make $2 million per year. The Senate bill has no income caps for farmers. The current cutoff is $2.5 million.

That's enough to keep the John Deere and the Mercedes running for another year.

Fortunately, President Bush has threatened to veto the current legislation unless it reforms the subsidy system and eliminates certain tax hikes.

Congressional leaders need to craft a sensible, fiscally responsible farm bill that really helps farmers in need.