Chance to better themselves leaves Virginia family in debt

Full March moon. Flat peanut fields rimmed with pines - the Tidewater region of rural Virginia, a few minutes' drive from the Carolina border. In the dooryard, a late-model pickup truck and a newish-looking car. Some outbuildings and farm equipment in the shadows behind.

And the house: new, brick, unlandscaped, shaped like the kind that is delivered by truck in two halves and nailed together. In the kitchen, new appliances gleaming in the hard light of a television set. In the living room, new inexpensive furniture, a stereo, and another television set. Lying flat on a chest, a framed picture of Martin Luther King flanked by portraits of John and Robert Kennedy.

It is the home of a farmer whose story is both typical and extraordinary. His name is Abel Lee Artis. He is black, poor, and $167,393 in debt.

Abel Artis shakes hands simply, with the calloused hand of a peanut farmer. For years he and his wife, Alfear, worked ''shares'' on another farm - eking out a simple existence that paid about $35 per month and gave him, at the end of each season, a share in the crop of about $900.

Then, four years ago, the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) - an arm of the United States Department of Agriculture - offered the family a chance to farm on their own. Abel leaped at it. His reasoning was simple and straightforward. His parents had worked shares all their lives, he says, and ''Any man wants to try to better hisself, coming up through life.''

Although he had no assets, he was given a federal loan to buy his land - ''sixty-one point nine-nine acres,'' says Alfear, a short woman with an apricot-colored crocheted cap and a head for figures. On the land he was to erect what the government calls ''a decent dwelling'' - far better than the one which he had been renting for $20 a month. And he bought equipment: two tractors , a shed, drying facilities, a peanut combine, a digger, sprayer, cultivator, grain bin, and the rest.

As their six children - Brenda, Shirl, Preston, Valerie, Stacy, and Bernard, ages 21 down to 5 - watched television and did homework in the kitchen, we talked about the events that had brought Abel and Alfear to their present situation. Nobody in Southampton County disputes one fact: that four of the last five peanut harvests have been, as county extension agent Ben S. Lee says, ''disastrous.'' For Abel, that meant no income - and no money to repay his debts.

While we talk, Alfear gets out a letter. Dated Jan. 22, 1982, it is from Michael Piercy, the new FmHA county supervisor who arrived in the area last summer. ''Your accounts have been accelerated for 'Demand of Payment' in full,'' it reads. ''We suggest that you voluntarily liquidate your equipment instead of the FmHA performing a forced liquidation.'' Translated into a language with which Abel is more familiar, that means he must sell his tractors to begin repaying his debt. The government is foreclosing. The reason? As of Jan. 11 he had accrued $15,353.98 in unpaid interest.

''I want to know who's pressing him to take our two tractors,'' says Alfear. Without them, she says, Abel and his oldest son will no longer be able to farm. Abel agrees, seeing it as part of an age-old problem. In this area, he says, ''there ain't but a few black farmers.'' He sees the threatened foreclosure as a way for large landowners to get even larger. ''They want me to work by the day, '' he says.

For Mr. Piercy it is a different kind of problem. Interviewed in a spare, one-story building in nearby Courtland, he notes that five or six other farmers in the county are in similar situations. His office - staffed by only three people, and swamped with applications for loans - had planned to foreclose last year. This year, he says, ''we just can't postpone it.''

He denies having received pressure from Washington to collect bad loans - which, along with delinquent Small Business Administration and student aid loans , have created a controversy. The decision, he says, is made by a five-member board of farmers in the county. ''What we're saying is that he's going to be out of the farming business,'' says Mr. Piercy, who is also black. He says the board looks carefully at all factors -- realizing that ''we're affecting this family for the rest of their lives.''

He cites several reasons for the threatened foreclosure: poor managerial ability, too much equipment, and farming too far from home on some land he rents in addition to his own. These factors make Abel's operation less efficient and less profitable than it should be. He also faults Abel for buying all his equipment at once. ''You just can't get it all at one time,'' he says, noting that veteran farmers sometimes wait years.

The director of social services for the county, Gwen Vick, sees it still another way. She says that the amount of assistance received by the Artis family in food stamps -- $419 per month -- is the maximum amount available to a family of eight, and corresponds to a reported net income of between zero and $1 a year. ''It's real sad,'' she says, ''but I don't think he got there by himself. I think he got caught in a political change.''

Although she claims no detailed knowledge of Abel's case, she says what those more familiar with it may also feel: there is ''a strong possibility that loans have been made that should never have been made.''Where do the Artises go from here?

For the immediate future, it seems, they will remain in their present awkward classification: working poor. Because husband and wife are together, they do not qualify for the basic welfare grant (Aid to Families with Dependent Children). Because they live in the decent dwelling on their own land -- and have to repay the mortgage on it -- they do not benefit from public housing or from federally subsidized ''Section 8'' housing.

Would Abel like to go on welfare? ''There's too many folks on welfare who could work,'' he says. ''I'd rather work.''

And if he had the President's ear, what would he tell him? ''That farmers are having a hard time,'' he says, and that ''the big man is putting the poor man out.'' In that regard, at least, Abel is typical. It is a complaint the President has no doubt heard many times before.

Since talking with the Artis family in March, they have had something of a reprieve from the FmHA. Michael Piercy, contacted by telephone, explained that he is pursuing ''an orderly plan of liquidation'' -- meaning that he will probably not foreclose until next fall. The reason, he explains, is that the government's primary security for its loan is the real estate -- and now is not a good time to sell land.

So will Abel Artis be in the peanut business for at least one more year? He is trying to raise the money to repay his immediate obligations to the FmHA. In the meantime, however, one of his tractors has been in the shop for repairs. It will stay there, according to the mechanic, until he comes up with the $600 needed to pay the bill. Even then he may not be able to use it: Piercy is considering liquidating the equipment this spring.

Is this the best way for the federal government to recover its outstanding loan? Following a wet spring, it may be a good year for his crop. But it could be yet another year of deepening debt.

Whichever way the decision goes, the Artises will still eat (thanks to food stamps) and have a roof over their heads. Is this the much-discussed ''safety net'' of government social services in operation, saving a family from dire circumstances? Or is it a false sense of security, encouraging a slow, agonizing delay in a situation which might otherwise demand swift action?

These are difficult questions, ones which the Artises may need counseling to resolve. Piercy agrees his thinly staffed agency in the county is ill-equipped to provide the kind of advice that might help make Abel a better manager. They, too, are touched by federal government cutbacks -- and a change in philosophy at the very top of government away from government support.

One source of help comes from the National Association for the Southern Poor based in Arlington, Va. Roger Person, head of the group's Southampton Assembly, says his group is designed to help people solve individual and community problems.

Beyond farming, Mr. Artis has no skills - and there are, by all accounts, no public (nonagricultural) jobs available in Southampton County for him even if he did. But if he is a good farmer, says Mrs. Vick, ''I don't think he would have any difficulty getting a job.'' There is also, she says, a demand for household domestic help - so that Alfear might go to work, if she could leave her five-year-old in the care of the older children.

That would mean a wholesale change in life style - perhaps even a return to sharecropping.

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