Some financially strapped farmers seek allies to increase clout

Protesting farmers are working to cultivate a few more good friends. * On Nov. 1, about 2,500 people in Waterloo, Iowa, turned out for a meeting arranged by a coalition of farm protest groups. Some 150 farmers were joined by unemployed union workers and low-income residents. About half the crowd was black.

* The same day in Virginia, Minn., 175 people attended a dinner and forum aimed at cementing alliances between farmers and steelworkers unions in the area , which have been hit hard by unemployment.

These are the latest of a growing number of attempts at coalition-building by disgruntled farming organizations. They seek to elicit support from union workers, environmentalists, antinuclear protestors, and blacks.

Their message, in the words of Donald Murphy: ''If you eat three times a day, you're part of agriculture.''

Farm protests are nothing new in the United States. Mr. Murphy is one of the founders in Illinois of the American Agricultural Movement, which spearheaded the farm tractorcade to Washington in 1979.

These farmers - seeking help for economic problems brought on by drought, high interest rates, and several years of low crop prices - are interested in stronger voter clout.

These demands for more government intervention do not represent the mainstream of farm groups, such as the American Farm Bureau Federation, which is calling for less federal involvement.

But with a presidential election next year, the pitch of the protest is rising.

''The farmers can't elect a dogcatcher in the US anymore, 'cause there aren't enough of us,'' Murphy says. ''If we don't band together now, we're all going to be out of business.''

The banding together could produce some strange bedfellows, however.

The North American Farm Alliance has reportedly made several contacts with Jesse L. Jackson, the newly announced black presidential candidate, to seek common ground. Protest organizers admit they have an uphill battle to fight if they expect to influence the 1984 elections.

''It's really building bridges where there have been some very large gaps,'' says Daniel Levitas, research consultant with Rural America, a nonprofit educational and advocacy group in Des Moines, Iowa.

The Iowa Farm Unity Coalition, for example, includes state affiliates of his organization, the National Farmers Organization, the Catholic Rural Life Conference, the United Automobile Workers, among others.

Rural paramilitary groups have tried to latch on to the movement, too, but they are becoming discredited, observers say. Farmers were appalled by the brutal killing of two Minnesota bankers this fall, apparently by a farmer dispossessed of his land. No paramilitary group is known to have been connected with the incident.

The biggest problem may not lie in building coalitions, however, but in organizing the farmers themselves, who have a broad array of interests and tend to be a hardy, independent lot.

Marty Strange, codirector for the Center for Rural Affairs in Nebraska, sees three main groups: well-established farmers content to remain well established; new or marginal farmers hurt by a combination of drought, low farm prices, and high interest rates; and the so-called ''young tigers,'' who borrowed heavily to become big-time farmers during the 1970s, when the US geared up for a food-export boom that never materialized.

The protest movement draws strength from elements of these last two groups, he says. The ''young tigers,'' hurt by falling land prices and jittery lenders, are often the most vocal supporters of government intervention.

''There's a real close call to whether we can afford to bail out that kind of behavior,'' says Mr. Strange, whose organization represents small commercial farmers. His group is specifically urging that farm relief be targeted to family-sized farms, while the other groups talk about general farm relief.

In essence, most protest groups ''want regulation during the hard times, but will they support it in the good times?'' he asks. ''That's a test that farm protest movements have failed in the past.''

In Illinois, for example, protest organizing has been limited, observers say, probably because farmers here generally seem to be better off than in some other states.

''Generally speaking, the worse you're hurt, the louder you yell,'' says Harold Dodd, president of the Illinois Farmers Union in Springfield.

And in this state, as well as in the mainstream of US farmers, there doesn't appear to be too much yelling yet.

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