Debt-ridden cotton farmers face another losing year

Texas cotton farmer Wilbert Dieringer isn't shy about admitting that he's heavily in debt -- with $650,000 borrowed against his $400,000 in assets.

After rising for the prayer and Pledge of Allegiance that opened a meeting about farm problems here in West Texas, Mr. Dieringer settled his Stetson back over his tanned forehead and explained that most of his neighbors are in exactly the same situation. He's had to increase his borrowing to cover the more than $ 100,000 he'll spend to raise 1,200 acres of cotton this year.

Like his neighbors farming the flat cotton fields of this semiarid High Plains region, Dieringer says, ''At the very best we would hope to break even this year. But I would say we're looking at a loss at least as bad as last year.''

Another loss would mean the third losing year in a row for Dieringer and probably would force him to sell out to pay off as much of his debts as possible. But Dieringer is calm about the prospect. He explains simply that ''possibly 50 to 70 percent of young farmers will be selling out if things don't change, because we are looking at depression prices for our commodities and we are paying 1982 prices for our production expenses.''

Local bank president Dale Cary hopes the situation will change for farmers. Bankers, he says, ''don't want to see the small farmer dry up and blow away. He is our livelihood.'' So Mr. Cary is continuing to bankroll local farmers and remains optimistic about their long-term prospects despite the numbers he sees being forced to sell out.

Robert Welman is one local farmer on the verge of selling out. Yet, he says, ''Farmers know how to survive.'' He worries instead about the nation's cities, saying they don't realize how closely they remain tied to agriculture.

''Look at the unemployment today up north,'' Mr. Welman says. ''If farmers don't start earning a fair profit, all the problems up north are going to get a lot worse.''

Farmers here point out that not only major farm equipment dealers like International Harvester are suffering from the drastic decline in farmers' purchasing power. The impact is also being felt by the steel, automobile, and appliance industries, they say. And there's a less direct impact on every American because federal tax revenue from farmers has dried up along with farm income.

Banker Cary explains that ''agriculture is a big part of the nation's economy , whether the Reagan administration realizes this or not.'' His hope is that Washington lawmakers will see the connection and take measures to boost farm income as a necessary prelude to economic recovery for the nation as a whole.

US Rep. Kent Hance (D) of Texas shares Cary's hope. At the Lubbock farmers meeting, called by the radical American Agricultural Movement, which ''tractorcaded'' Washington four years ago to highlight farm problems, Representative Hance said that an increasing number of congressmen realize the need for new legislation to reverse the decline in farm income.

American Agriculture Movement president Marvin Meek specifically urges government action to cut back the number of acres planted to crops. At the Lubbock meeting, Mr. Meek called for a mandatory 25 percent ''set-aside'' rather than the current voluntary 15 percent reduction. This is needed, he says, to reduce surplus production and thereby raise farm commodity prices.

Meek admits he was wrong four years ago to think farmers could change government policies by driving tractors to Washington. This time, his plan is to raise $3 million from farmers to run a new political action committee. He sees this as the only way that a minority group can secure the number of votes needed to push new legislation through Congress -- even when the new legislation is intended to benefit not just farmers, but the economy as a whole.

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