Discontent billows over US farmlands Many farmers feel Reagan has failed to deliver

A little over six months into his term of office, President Reagan's farm policies -- particularly on credit and commodity price supports -- seem to be sparking dissatisfaction among US farmers.

A sampling of opinion of farm leaders produced no unanimity, though comments ranged from "uneasy" to "angry."

"We've got strong anti-Reagan rumblings around here," says Wisconsin Farmers Union state president Lee Mulder. "I would say that's largely due to the President's moves to lower dairy price supports, which are vital to this state. Reagan could be in trouble here unless his policies change."

Perhaps the strongest discontent among farmers can be found in some Southern states like Georgia, where farmers have been badly hurt by the economy and by an unprecedented drought for four out of the last five years. Although Jimmy Carter managed to carry that state in the 1980 election, Mr. Reagan did pick up unusually strong support in rural farm communities there.

Today, a number of the President's supporters in Georgia feel he has betrayed them by sharply cutting back federal farm loan programs, by supporting continued high interest rates, and by moving to eliminate the peanut price support program. these actions, it is felt, will only exacerbate an already severe cost-price squeeze induced by skyrocketing production costs and interest rates combined with the relatively stagnant prices paid farmers for their products.

"We've got the worst crisis here in the 44-year history of our agency," explains L. Wayne Howell, Georgia regional director of the USDA's Farmer's Home Administration (FmHA), the federal lender of last resort for farmers. Howell notes that only 17 percent of the FmHA's 6,000 Georgia loans last year were repaid on time. While the agency allowed another 30 percent of its statewide loan debts to be rolled over until late 1981, Mr. Howell conceded that half of Georgia's FmHA loan recipients are still classed as delinquent.

"At least 40 to 50 percent of our farmers are very deeply in debt," adds Tommy Irvin, Georgia's commissioner of agriculture. But despite the heavy debt loads and resultant increases in bankruptcies, Mr. Irwin does not believe the mood on the farm is necessarily dark. "We expect some strong crops this year," he says. Mr. Irwin further doubts that the bankruptcy rate could reach 50 percent, as one FmHa spokesman predicted, "simply because lenders have a stake in helping most of our farmers pull through. The alternative is a collapse in land values, for starters."

Others are not as optimistic.Says Johnny Neeley, a highly regarded farm loan officer with the Citizens State Bank of Georgia: "Just in Taylor County alone, more than half of all farmers have mortgaged 100 percent or more of everything they own. We may be talking about antoher 'Grapes of Wrath here.'"

Whatever the actual prospects for farmers' survival, the crisis in Georgia's farm economy has produced in many a concomitant "crisis in confidence" in the Reagan presidency and in the government's concern for the plight of the family farmer.

"We've got to change the fundamental overall direction of government in America," was the message of a speech given by Tommy Kersey, state president of the militant American Agriculture Movement, at a tractorcade and rally in Lyons, Ga., last May. "Reagan lied to us," Mr. Kersey declared. "He made all kinds of promises to ease up credit and help the farmer get a decent price for his products, but instead he's carrying out the biggest transfer of wealth this nation's ever seen -- from the working man to the rich!"

But most political leaders in Georgia discount such militant tactics as Kersey's call for a strike "to shut down the flow of food to the cities in order to force Washington to give us some relief." As for disaffection with the President's policies, first-term GOP Sen. Mack Mattingly believes that any anti-Reagan backlash which might exist is only temporary, according to his press secretary, Richard Moore.

"They key issue will be whether the President and the Republicans can bring inflation down," predicts Mr. Moore. "If, as we expect, the overall Reagan economic plan works, then the President will certainly continue to enjoy the support of America's farmers."

Nationwide, signs of a small but growing farm backlash against the administration have been noted in other states, though they are probably not of the same intensity as in Georgia. No doubt this is partly due to the fact that under the Reagan administration, farmers' cost of production, including interest rates, have continued to increase at more than twice the rate of farm income. This declining profitability is still resulting in the exodus of some 1,000 farmers from the land each week in the United States, according to the Department of Agriculture, and farmers interviewed in many states say they had expected the President to take stronger steps to reverse this trend.

In Iowa, the nation's second-largest agricultural state in terms of total sales, the President's popularity has declined by 11 percent since April, according to a copyrighted article in the July 19 Des Moines Register. "Ronald Reagan's political honeymoon appears to be almost over in Iowa," one-sixt of whose population is made of farmers, the newspaper noted.

"A lot of folks have changed their minds about the President around here," notes Iowa Farmers Union state president Pete Croghan, who adds that White House actions to maintain high interest rates and cut back FmHA lending by 25 percent were especially unpopular among farmers who Mr. Croghan says are "living hand to mouth."

Disagreeing with Croghan's picture of farmer sentiment, however, Leo Waggoner , administrative director of the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, says he does not detect any significant anti-Reagan backlash in Iowa's farm belt. "The president still has very strong support here in Iowa," Says Mr. Waggoner, whose organization is known for its conservatism. "I'm not saying the [Des Moines] Register's poll was inaccurate," he adds, "but they sort of blew it out of proportion."

In Washington, D.C., the associate director of information for the national Farm Bureau Federation takes a similar view. "Maybe the President's popularity is declining in some farm areas," says Joe Fields. "But that's pretty much normal for any President after he's been in office a while. Again, we feel the administration is correct to concentrate on tackling the larger problem of inflation. If he does that, many of the problems particularly affecting farmers will be taken care of."

Except for the Farm Bureau, however, there seems to be a consensus of dissatisfaction among farm leaders. Typical was the view of the National Farmers Organization president Devon Woodland: "A large percentage of our nation's farmers suffer from a tremendous debt load, and they see high interest rates as one of the biggest culprits. So given the President's policies, and the continued stalling on a new farm bill, you can speculate on whether or not Reagan is being hurt in the farm belt."

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.