In Donald P. Baker's July 1 article on Wayne Peterson, the farmer who remained in Washington after last winter's tractorcade, it was erroneously reported that South Dakota farm families are paying for his office. The Capitol Hill office is supported by members of the American agricultural movement from throughout the country. CAPTION: (NEW-LINE)Picture 1, Wayne Peterson on the Mall near his tractor. This is Peterson's second summer in a row spent in Washington "trying to get someone to listen." By Fred Sweets -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, A farmer's tractor-cade headed for Washington during last winter's demonstrations; photo by Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post.
WAYNE PETERSON ought to be back home in South Dakota, working on his ranch. His big bones ache to be branding calves on the rocky, rolling plains.
But for the second summer in a row, Peterson is in Washington "trying to get somebody to listen" about the plight of the family farm. He came here with the tractorcade in February abd now is on the verge of being another Washington monument, the Last Farmer on the Mall.
He spent eight months here last year, and lost so much money he couldn't afford to buy cows for the ranch this year. This year after making the 1,450-mile trip from Highmore, S.D., for the second season, he could lose his friends, and even more.
"My friends and neighbors think I'm a sonofabitch for leaving my family, and I do too," said Peterson, a towering hulk of a man who observed his 50th birthday here in May by himself.
"I don't want to be here," said Peterson, a father of six and grandfather of two, "but I must stay. I'm obsessed. Yes, that's the word. Obsessed."
Peterson is an unlikely martyr. A high-school dropout [who later got a diploma], until two years ago he had never spoken to a group larger than his family. But since then, he has, by all accounts, developed into an articulate -- if occasionally extreme -- spokesman for the cause of American agriculture.
The seeds of his obsession were planted in the dry dust of his 6,200-acre cattle ranch in central South Dakota in a drought two summers ago, when "the heart had gone out of ranching."
They blossomed on Dec. 3, 1977, a bitter winter night in Pierre. About 180 fellow ranchers had battled their way through a 20-below blizzard, from as far as 250 miles away, and gathered in the community room of the Red Owl supermarket.
They had come to hear Stan Debaer, a Nebraska rancher, talk about a new movement in American agriculture -- divorced of the formalized organizations such as the Grange, Farm Bureau or National Farmers Organization -- with the single purpose of getting parity up to 100 percent.
But the small airplane that Debaer was using to hedgehop across the frozen plains got stranded at an airport 100 miles from Pierre.
Before Peterson and his wife Helen left home that night, they talked about the burgeoning American Agriculture Movement. "We agreed that it was right and just," she recalled, "but decided that Wayne wouldn't get involved."
But that night, as his friends and neighbors anxiously paced the room, it was apparent the crowd wanted to hear somebody, "so Wayne stood up and began to talk," his wife said.
"Something came over me," is the way Peterson remembers that night. His talk was sprinkled with homilies about home, church, flag, living wage and family farm, and how if things didin't change soon, it would all be gone.
Afterward, people crowded around, and invited him to speak in their home towns.
The next Monday night he spoke in Wall [home of the famous drug store], and "it snowballed after that," with Peterson making 45 speeches in 30 days.
"He's been on the road ever since," is how Helen Peterson marks that night.
His hands. Everyone who talks about Wayne Peterson mentions his hands.
He may be the only person ever barred from meeting with the vice president of the United States because his hands are too big.
Eric Vaughn, who is on Vice President Mondale's issues staff, said Peterson has been after him to get an audience with his boss.
"But we were advised that it wouldn't be a good idea," Vaughn said, BECAUSE Peterson "it considered one of the more militant AAM members, and in the interests of security."
Vaughn explained: He's quite a large person. He puts people on edge. If he ever got angry -- my God -- what he could do. I can't get over the size of his hands."
Tell that story to Peterson, who stands 6-feet-3 and weighs 210, and he rocks with laughter and says, "If I keep eating as little as I have here in the last year, I'll soon be of a size that I can see him."
Then he may twist from his finger a ring made of Black Hills gold, lay it on the table and brag, I've never met a man who could wear it." The ring is a size 18, with an opening 1 and 13/16 inches wide, almost enough space for a half-dollar to slip through.
"I've never raised my hands in anger," Peterson assured a visitor to the rowhouse on 2nd Street SE that is rented as a Capitol Hill office by South Dakota members of AAM. "But I'd hate to be there if it ever happens," he added, roaring again.
"I didn't know how to react to violence," which he encountered here during the tractorcade protest in February, Peterson recalled.
Peterson was in one of the lead tractors that was lurching along Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House when they were halted by a police blockade. When Peterson climbed down from the tractor cab, he said, one of the police officers drew his service revolver and aimed it at the driver of another tractor.
"I told him to 'shoot him or put that thing away,' "Peterson said, a remark that prompted another officer to "push me in the belly with his club."
Whereupon Peterson "took that stick away from him," an action that resulted in him being kneed in the groin. "That made me mad," Peterson continued. But what followed isn't too clear because "I kinda blacked out." When he recovered, he was "damn near freezing to death in the back of a paddy wagon," in the company of several other farmers. They told Peterson that at one point in the tussle "I had a whole bunch of those cops on the ground with me."
Peterson was released from custody after he forfeited $10 collateral on the charge of disorderly conduct. "I guess I took 'em to the ground, all right," he said later, "but we're God-fearing, peace-loving people and I hope we never get over it."
Despite Peterson's assurances to the contrary, one person who has heard him speak at rallies here said, "I think it made his day when that cop hit him. I wouldn't trust him not to be violent. When he's pointing his finger and screaming, he can be very intimidating. He stands out like a Baptist preacher. He can move the folks, but I worry he'll move them to violence,"
Vaughn, the Mondale aide, said Peterson is "considered a zealot, even by his peers. There's nothing Wayne wouldn't do to further his cause."
Nonetheless, Vaughn added, "He's quite articulate. I wish I could have gotten him in" to see Mondale. "But he has only two issues -- 100 percent parity and to save the family farm -- and wants a yes or no answer. He is asking for something the administration won't come up with."
Peterson and five other men, all of them dressed in jeans and western shirts adorned with buttons promoting their cause -- "no farmers, no food" or "a bushel of wheat for a barrel of oil" and even "Dump Carter, Save America, Keep the Family Farm" -- are sitting around a kitchen table in Peterson's apartment.
The apartment is in the Oakwood complex, off I-395 in Alexandria. It features a "Roommate referral" service; a bar where disco lessons are taught; tennis and volleyball courts; two swimming pools and two Jacuzzis. In the latter, nude couples have been known to frolic late at night, and before sunset one recent evening, men and women in bathing suits stood back-to-back in the swirling, knee-deep water, reading paperback novels.
"But Wayne's never even been down there to check it out," taunted Ervin I. ["for ignorance," he said] Steele, a Burdick, Kan., cattleman who "quit farming" earlier this year because "I lose less money being here lobbying than I do working back home."
"There is nearly always a visitor or two sharing the apartment with Peterson. One night recently, it was overflowing. In addition to Steele, the quests were Sam Schmitz, of Herkimer, Kan., called "Santa Claus" because of his white beard; Howard Pierce of Alma, Mich., Nick Salman of Iona, S.D., and Jack Fanning, who had just arrived from South Dakota and would have to sleep on the couch.
The men take turns cooking and washing the dishes, but that's about the extent of the housekeeping. Their decorating has been limited to taping sheets of wrapping paper on the wall above the living room couch, listing telephone numbers of newspapers and radio stations in the Upper Midwest.
After the farmers seated themselves before a mountain of food at the kitchen table, Peterson led them in a prayer. Then they plunged into a roast of beef sliced as thick as Peterson's hands, boiled potatoes and biscuits -- all smothered with onions and thick gravy -- green beans topped with strips of melted cheese. In the middle of the table were real butter, a gallon of milk and a pot of coffee.
The conversation covered the day's successes and failures -- meetings with aides of members of Congress, Department of Agriculture employes and attending Hill hearings dealing with agriculture -- and the topic, raised by a reporter, of how long Peterson was prepared to stay in Washington.
"Until we get what we have to have," he thundered.
After dinner, Peterson leaned back from the table, stuck a pinch of Copenhaver snuff in his jaw, and told about how he's learned the ways of the city.
Driving along Shirley Highway in rush hour each day in his daughter's beat-up Ford, Peterson has discovered he can sneak into the lanes reserved for four-person car pools if he has at least one passenger with him. "The cops stop only cars without any passengers," he said.
More to the point of his mission here -- and he considers it that -- Peterson has learned how to keep in touch with the maze of legislative and administrative actions that will decide the fate of farm legislation.
Peterson first laid eyes on Washington on January 17, 1978, as part of the original tractorcade protest. At that time, he believed that "if we'd just get a chance to explain [their plight] to Congress, and the news media, they'd understand.
"Wheat is the key to all farm prices, the pacesetter," Peterson told anyone who would listen. If farmers got 100 percent of parity, it would double the money they receive -- from $3- $4 a bushel to about $6 -- while adding "a maximum of four cents" to the price of a loaf of bread.
Selling that wheat for $6 a bushel would put the nation's biggest industry back on its feet, he went on. Workers forced off the farm would return, freeing up city jobs for person now unemployed; an extra $100 billion in farm income would return $25 billion to $40 billion into the federal treasury via income taxes; and with an incentive to sell wheat abroad, "the balance-of-payment deficit would disappear," went his spiel.
And so on and so on. A reverse domino theory. It all sounds so simple, and people respond to Peterson suspiciously. "It is simple," he answers with the impatience of someone who has heard that lament many times from skeptical city dwellers.
But by last Oct. 14, when Congress recessed without solving the problem, it was Peterson who was skeptical. It was "safe to go home," he said, but he took with him the knowledge that "in Washington, nothing is simple, and right does not necessarily prevail."
During the eight months Peterson spent here last year, he not only shortchanged his family and his farm, but he neglected his seat in the South Dakota legislature, to which he had been elected in 1977 "without making a single speech." He only showed up for two or three days of the 1978 session, on his infrequent trips back to South Dakota, and was defeated in the Republican primary.
Peterson came up again in February, with the tractorcade. And despite that initial confrontation with police, he has grown to "love city people -- cops, cab drivers, blacks." Until he came here last year, he doesn't think he had seen "more than two blacks" in his life, and that was probably on "my only other trip East" -- to Chicago a few years ago.
Although he has now spent more than 12 months living here, Peterson has seen little of the tourist attractions. His only trip to the momuments was in the company of two Kansas farmwives who promised to fix dinner for him in return for him acting as a guide.[He's eaten dinner in restaurants here fewer than half a dozen times.]
Peterson feels badly about his lack of desire to see the sights, because "Washington is a beautiful town, but I didn't come here to sightsee. It's a mental block that I can't get over. But I'm not interested in what happened 100 years ago, I'm only interested in the future."
As far as living here, "Good God, no. I'd rather be in jail."
About 500 South Dakota families have pitched in nearly $8,000 to keep Peterson in Washington. The money pays for the $625-a-month rent on the office on Capitol Hill, the $485-a-month rent on apartment in Alexandria and Peterson's routine expenses. Among the latter is a nightly telephone call to his family -- he ran up a $1,200 bill one month -- and a flight home about every six weeks.
Helen and Wayne Peterson raised their children in the tall, skinny white frame-and-stucco house that reminds her friends back East of a prairie home in a Harvey Dunn painting.
From her kitchen window, beyond the belt of trees that protects the house from the wind that often howls across the plains, cows are grazing, as usual, this summer. But there is a difference. The cows aren't marked with the Peterson brand, an arrow followed by the letter r.
Since "something came over Wayne 18 months ago," Helen Peterson said, her husband has had little time, and even less money, to buy his own herd. Before he could "draw a deep breath," Peterson, with Helen's concurrence, had comitted up to $20,000 in their own funds to "the movement."
If he were home, he would have vaccinated and branded 500 cows that are grazing on the fields of wheat, now green and boot-top high. But a combination of low prices, gambling on a herd in North Dakota and his absence has left Peterson without enough money to buy his own cows. So he feeds other people's herds.
By many standards, Peterson is wealthy. Over the last 30 years, he has accumulated 4,480 acres of land, at a cost of $168,000. But in farming, "refinancing, like Christmas, comes once a year," Peterson explained. In a year such as 1976, when he planted 1,440 acres of wheat and harvested only 1,250 bushels [an average acre yielded 28 bushels in the state last year], Peterson was forced to borrow from the local bank to buy the next year's cattle, seed and fertilizer.
As a result, he now owes $450,000 on the land. Peterson is able to borrow money because inflation has increased the value of his land. So despite his debts, he could sell out today and come out with $200,000. But if you ask him why he doesn't do that, Peterson raises his voice, pounds those huge fists and screams, "You don't buy and sell farms, you use a farm."
In the spring of 1977, when he didn't have the $40,000 in payments due at the bank, Peterson "agonized" in the tractor about the future of farming.
He felt the solution lay in Washington, but he didn't have the $300 plane fare to come here and explain his plight. If he could, Peterson thought, the bureaucrats would understand and take steps to solve the problem.
That kind of naivete is gone now. After months of attending congressional hearings, pounding on doors of the bureaucracy, and even proselytizing city dwellers on Metro platforms, Peterson said "I haven't met a person who doesn't agree there is a problem." But there isn't anything close to unanimity about how to solve it.
He vows to stay here "as long as I can afford to, and until we are successful."
His wife spent two weeks here with him last year, and returned home "worried about what those halls of Congress do to the good people we send there. It seems as though the city eats people up."
Then, after a thoughtful pause, she added, "I hope it doesn't change Wayne."