Success may very well bankrupt American farmers, it strikes me after spending a day with Marvin Meek, the hefty chairman of American Agriculture Movement, some of whose members have been in town for several weeks now to urge congressmen to tend to their woe.
"Don't see how you all stand it," he said as we began a pilgrimage through the Rayburn, Cannon, Longworth, Dirksen and Russell Buildings (major lairs of members of Congress) "because on my farm I can walk 12 miles a day and not think nothing of it, but up here this paving gets to you."
Well. We are pretty tough up here. We think nothing of walking through congressional corridors and offices and hearing rooms from 8:30 in the morning till 8 at night. Most of us do it every day of the year.
But then we haven't led the sheltered life of your typical west-Texas farmer.
"I lost $15,000 last year," he said, "even with an excellent crop of wheat and beans.
"You know we had that hailstorm come through that leveled everything in its path.
"I was settin' in the drive-in drinking a soda pop when it come up. It ruined my cotton, and I didn't get but 180 pounds (of lint per acre) instead of 600. It didn't hurt my cattle. But one fellow, his cattle were out in the field, didn't have no shelter, and the hail knocked the hide plum off of them."
Meek wonders what will happen to him if in a quite good year he loses $15,000 to $20,000. In a sensational year, in 1977, he paid income tax on $7,500. And you can't count on years like that.
With his father he farms 450 acres of cotton, 200 acres of soybeans, runs 40 head of cattle and grows cucumbers.
Good rich land in his part of west Texas costs $1,500 an acre. That land, formerly thought of as a semi-permanent dust bowl, is now irrigated and highly productive.
"I can grow anything that's legal," Meek sometimes boasts a little. The land will produce it.
"For every 640 acres they'll invest $100,000 in their crop, not counting the cost of land or the cost of management.
"The average farmer last year got 2 1/2 percent return on his investment. And this year. . ." he wagged his head, under its blue denim cap that he only takes off to sleep (if then).
His blue eyes registered some distress:
"We bought a combine two years ago and give $40,000 for it. It's now $65,000. We got a tractor, $23,000 and two years later it's $32,000 for the same thing.
"Wait," I said, "I think we've overshot Sen. Bentsen." (Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-Tex.)),
"They stuck that fool wall in the middle of the hall," Meek muttered, "so you can't get where you're going." But he kept right on, while I darted here and there looking for Bentsen's room number and of course we got there. But when Meek starts down a hall, he moves with steady unperturbed pace, unless some fool architect has run a wall smack dab across the middle.
Sen. Bentsen said statistics suggest farm income will be 20 percent less this year than last. Others whom Meek consulted thought maybe 30 percent less.
Everywhere -- and Meek beleives that by now he has called on every representative and every senator to urge legislative help for farmers -- Meek was well received.
His mannner is soft, serious, engaging.
He is full of figures and he talks price, or pryass as they pronounce it in Texas.
"The thing we are talking about is price," said Rep. Glenn English (D-Okla.) who also pronounces the word with far-horizon breadth. "Some people get off on rabbit chases or conspiracy theories, but what we are really talking about is price, and what a farmer's income is."
"Congressman English seems to see things a lot as you do," I ventured to Meek after his visit with English.
"He's tops," said Meek.
Rep. William H. Natcher (D-Ky.) flung open the door of his office for Meek and behold there were 30 people already sitting about, members of the Kentucky Farm Bureau Federation, with whom Natcher had earlier had breakfast.
Natcher affirmed his interest and concern and Meek spoke briefly and everyone seemed pleased to be in the presence of everyone else.
The truth is that Meek has seen many legislators far more than once, and seems to know every congressional staffer in Washington, so that his stately progess through the office buildings is punctuated by greetings to and from congressional assistants.
Meek makes a point of not staying long.
He may be worried that a cotton amendment is tacked to some bill, fearing the amendment may defeat the billl itself. Or he is worried that a tax-benefit bill for farm production of alcohol for fuel may be in trouble, and seeks support. Or he curries support for higher government loans on farm commodities.
He sat in two congressional hearings on farm matters, and lured Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex.) out from one of them.
They had a little talk in the hallway. Meek sometimes touches base, sometimes speaks directly to some specific legislation. Some inner clock tells Meek how long to stay and how far to push.
"Do you register as a lobbyist?" I asked, but he said he didn't have to. An American farmer is probably too close to apple pie and motherhood to need to register, though of course sinister types have to.
At lunch with Sam White (aide to Rep. Kent R. Hance (D-Tex.)) Meek listened as much as he talked, and I sensed that a friendly climate, rather than a specific argument, was being advanced.
"We deal a lot with congressional staffers," Meek said, "and it works, Congressmen are so busy -- sometimes one of them will have to go to the Capitol three times for votes while you're meeting with him -- that they rely a lot on what their aides tell them."
Two Arizona farmers, who had a prosperous look, though God knows you can't tell by looking nowadays, said they had done very well on cotton last year. This rather hurt Meek, still bruised by his hailstorm damage, especially when they said they didn't see why government should guarantee a farmer couldn't go broke.
Meek said "even if you're in a goodfinancial position, a loss is still a loss," and most farmers are skating far too near the edge of ruin for comfort.
English had said it worries him that some farmers do not seem to be aware how grave their position is.
"Everything we use," Meek said, "is energy related. You're a reporter, and you have stopped using your car a lot, and you've turned down your thermostat.
"But I have to irrigate my land. The world can't go without what we produce on our irrigated land. My bill is $10,000 a month for gas for irrigation.
"Now just as soon as they announce one of those $5-a-barrel increases in oil price, there goes the price of parts up 10 percent, and equipment up 8 percent.
"Diesel fuel last year was 45 cents, now it's 94 cents. Fertilizer last year was $125 a ton, now it's $265 a ton.
"How do you think we can make it up by increased production? We're already at a peak of production. But we're selling our commodities at the 1948 levels.
"Our net return -- in my case I allow $15,000 for the family to live on for the year -- in American farms was only 2.6 percent last year, but in the '60s it was 6.5 percent, and in the '50s it was 11 percent and from 1946 to 1952 it was 22 percent.
"Now you don't recover a loss even when you have a good year. We're in trouble. No doubt about that."
One meeting with a senator was canceled and when I left him at the end of the day he had a further appointment with a member of the House.
He has his wife, Sherry, and a 17-month-old daughter, Heather, up here with him. They live in a one-room ground-floor apartment on Capitoll Hill, with one window, heavily barred.
If Sherry Meek found anything unpleasant at the prospect of spending the day in that room, with her husband out lobbying all day, and the little girl with the sniffles, she gave no hint of it.
"At night we sometimes go out for supper" Meek said. Meek said he was born a big baby and had always been a heavy fellow. He said his weight of 400 pounds makes it uncomfortable for him to walk so many miles every day on our marble pavements.
"Don't see how you fellows do it," he said, peering at another flight of marble steps.
"Aw, you get used to it after a whilee," I said, privately resolving to choke the office nitwit who suggested following Meek around for a day.
I found him as affable and intelligent a guy as you're ever likely to meet, and I know how (experience, you will notice, is always a bitter teacher) there is nothing like a good two-hour sit-down interview.