Joe and Sue Swanson and Lonnie and Susan Morris, two of the farm families in Washington this week, say they aren't looking for welfare -- but one way or another, they want the government to provide them with more money.

To a lot of people in Washington who are on welfare, the distinction is lost. The Swansons last year got about $27,000 in federal money, the Morris' about $5,700, in connection with their two farming operations in Kansas.

There is a distinction, of course, a big one. Welfare in all its forms gives people a minimum income to meet their basic needs. Payments to farmers are supposed to provide some stability in a notoriously unstable business, a business heavily affected by government policies on everything from trade to inflation.

But the distinction between welfare and farm payments often goes by the boards because legislation to prop up farm incomes usually passes on a wave of welfare-like rhetoric about pending bankruptcies and farmers unable to feed their families.

"I really don't want supports. I don't want welfare checks," declared Joe Swanson, 33, a bearded, highly articulate grain and hog farmer from Windom, Kan. "All I want to see this country do is put a fair price on our agricultural commodities at the marketplace.

"I don't want guaranteed living. That's not it at all. I just want an opportunity to see the future," he said.

Still, last year the Swansons got that $27,000 mostly because the market price of the wheat, grain sorghum and barley that they raise on 2,300 acres -- including 1,260 they own -- fell below a "target" price set by law. They estimate that their land is worth about $920,000 but with a $500,000 mortgage. They have another $100,000 worth of short-term operating debt.

Even with the $27,000, Sue Swanson, who keeps the farm's books, estimated that they grossed $250,000 and lost about $30,000 in 1978. However, that includes the interest they had to pay on the $500,000 mortgage on their land.

The biggest problem for the Swansons last year was that they lost about half their 550 acres of wheat to hail and a long string of days with 100 degree heat and 25 mile-an-hour winds hurt the remaining wheat and other crops, too. In 1977, when they lost about $100,000, nearly a full month of hard rains at harvest time nearly wiped out their wheat.

But with a "normal" year, the Swansons would have made money with farm commodities at their current prices. The only trouble, said Joe Swanson wryly, "I've yet to have a 100 percent normal year."

A lot of farmers, however, had normal or better years in 1978. Cattlemen are making money once again, and dairy farmers are doing even better. Many grain farmers did not do badly, either.

Althogether, net farm income rose 37 percent in 1978 to $28.1 billion, the second highest level ever. Moreover, according to Agriculture Department estimates, the book value of farmers' assets rose $82 billion to a record $790 billion.

"In terms of total equity American farmers are worth 11 percent more today than they were a year ago," Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland said this week.

The problem, as it always has been for farm policymakers, is how to help the farmers who need help without paying out billions of dollars to many who do not need it. So far no one has found an answer.

The Morris' farm 610 acres, in Lyon's, Kan., none of which they personally own, though much of it belongs to Lonnie Morris' 89-year-old grandfather. They grossed just over $50,000 growing wheat, milo and alfalfa, and lost about $10,000 on a cash basis.

But that "loss" included an $18,000 expense for 59 heifers the Morris' hope to sell at a profit after feeding them through the winter.

What both families want from the government it not just the 90 percent of parity goal of the American Agriculture Movement, but what Joe Swanson calls "supply management." "What we would like to see is bushel controls, not just acreage controls," he said.

Such an approach, which has been in effect for several years for burley tobacco, could certainly prop up the price of a commodity if the limit was tight enough. There is one catch: Whenever farm incomes rise sharply, land prices usually follow them right up. The marketplace recognizes the value of an allotment -- in effect a government grant of the right to grow a certain crop -- and simply pushes up the price of the land carrying the allotment.

This happened after grain prices shot up in 1972 and 1973 after the Russian grain purchases. Suddenly land was worth more because the crops that could be grown on it were worth more. The same thing would occur, say farm economists, whenever farm incomes rise whether because of market demand exceeding the total crops that farmers can grow, or because that total is set artifically low by government action.

The ultimate dilemma was illustrated by two remarks these two farmers made:

"We're looking for long-range stability," said Joe Swanson.

"A farmer is like a hunting dog. Point him at a field when it's planting time, and he goes out and plants," said Lonnie Morris.

Farmers' natural tendency is to plant from fence row to fence row, unless the government somehow makes it worth his while not to do so. Even in the worst of years, farm prices are usually high enough that the farmer can cover his true out-of-pocket expenses for seed, fertilizer, fuel for his tractor, and the costs of harvesting. It almost never pays to leave land idle.

It's each farmer, quite reasonably following his own self-interest in good years and bad, plus the wide, unpredictable swings in world demand for agricultural commodities, that leads to efforts in most nations to protect their farmers from the vicissitudes of the market.

That protection in the United States does not constitute welfare, no matter what it might seem at times. The payments are supposed to offset, to some degree, the effects of other government actions on farmers.

Nevertheless, with the payments mostly tied to how much a farmer produces, or is capable of producing, those with the biggest farms get the most. That means that the wealthiest farmers usually get the most.

Whether that will ever lead to the "long-range stability" that is the Swansons and Morris' goal is open to question. After all, it hasn't so far and that's why the tractors are on the Mall and the Swansons and Morris' are in town.