Farmers lose political clout and money

Freshly harvested wheat is pouring into the grain elevators of central Kansas -- along with tares of resentment. Fine, hard, winter wheat (planted last winter) is filling the vast concrete storage elevators towering over the big cities such as Topeka, Wichita, and Salina.

But small towns here marked only by their busy elevators -- alongside abandoned schools and boarded up shops -- are a reminder that this year's wheat comes from a changing and troubled community.

Farmers and the businessmen who supply farm families are puzzled and hurt. They argue that underpaying the farmer for his hard work, heavy investment, and high risk is bound to undermine the US economy as a whole. And they see that the dwindling size of the farm population leaves the agricultural community with less and less of the political clout they need.

Farmers insist they are being penalized rather than given a just return for increasing their productivity and providing the world with food.

These problems are part of daily life for Kansas wheat farmers like the Hayes family in Lyons, where four generations of the family are working together on this year's harvest.

When Anne Hayes drove her six-wheel truck in with another 27 bushels (eight tons) of wheat her husband had harvested, the operator of the small grain elevator in nearby Mitcheli weighed and tested the grain. Then the operator, Max Alber, warned Mrs. Hayes that he might not have room for much more wheat. The day before, despite the 112 degree temperature, local farmers delivered 60, 000 bushels of grain in 67 truckloads while he emptied the grain as fast as possible into waiting railroad cars. But Kansas is running low on hopper cars.

Still the grain keeps flowing from the fields.

The more the grain flows in, the more pressure there is for the price of grain to drop. With each cent the price drops, the farmer has less chance of earning a reasonable return on the money already spent for tilling his ground, planting seed last October, and harvsting this June.

For farmers such as the Hayes family, any drop in price cuts into the narrow profit margin on their average yield of from 45 to 55 bushels per acre.

Some nearby farmers, with crops badly damaged by rain last November and hail in May, face a certain loss. They spent as much as their neighbors for tilling and seeding the fields but have come up with only 10 to 12 bushels per acre.

Such poor yields don't end a farmer's career. Farmers say they are used to dealing with the unexpected; used to the challenges presented by weather, insects, and disease; used to balancing off poor years against good years, and used to helping their neighbors.

What they find harder to deal with and more difficult to excuse is government policy.

Guiding his $40,0000 combine harvester through the rustling wheat, Byron Hayes says the government is especially difficult to deal with in an election year.

"People used to figure election year was a good year for the farmers, back when farmers could swing the vote," he explains as the hopper behind him steadily fills toward the 140-bushel level. "It's a direct turnaround now, I figure, with the government trying to do everything it can to keep consumer prices down in an election year."

But while the farmer sees government as trying to force food prices down, the farmer finds his own input costs rising steeply.

"Every time we fill a tractor," says Anne Hayes, "that's $50 to $60, and that's twice a day for every tractor working the fields."

Don Augden knows how such costs have affected the farmer. He has seen a 30 percent drop in equipment sales to farmers at his John deere dealership in Kingman, Kan. He puts blame on "emotional decisions in Washington which have effected the farmer quite severely -- like the Soviet grain embargo."

Standing beside a $72,000 tractor waiting for a buyer, who could have financing at 16 percent, Don Augden explains that the US economy is the loser when farmers are underpaid for producing food.

"The only way this country is going to get new dollars," says Mr. Augden, "is out of the ground."

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