Competition is driving American pecan growers nuts. Besieged by imports from Mexico and overshadowed by glitzy advertising campaigns for walnuts and almonds, the pecan industry is facing an ever-increasing surplus and steadily decreasing prices.

So, pecan growers are doing what any all-American industry would do: seeking help from Congress. In particular, the growers want to launch a promotional campaign that would increase demand for pecans -- and hopefully prices as well.

Their request is far from unusual. Farm commodities -- from beef, pork and eggs to potatoes and watermelons -- already have won federal backing to set up what are officially called farm commodity research and promotion programs.

Now, pecan growers want the same treatment: permission to launch a similar program by imposing a fee on all pecan growers and importers (in this case, a half cent per pound of unshelled nuts) with federal fines imposed on those who don't pay up.

"We need to educate consumers, particularly in areas other than the South, on the attributes and versatility of the pecan as a delicious, healthy food suitable for year-round use," says Errol John Dietze, president of the Texas Pecan Growers Assn.

Already approved by the Senate and by the House agriculture committee, the Pecan Promotion and Research Act is part of a growing move ment to promote agricultural products much as Pepsi, Dorito's, Jell-O and other brand-name goods are advertised. Fast replacing the traditional Pork Queen and Apple Princess promotions, these slick ad campaigns have considerable support from Congress and federal agricultural officials because, even though they are sanctioned by the federal government, they are designed to be paid for by the producers, not the taxpayers.

"I think the whole self-help programs are indispensable for the '90s," says Rep. Charles W. Stenholm (D-Tex), chairman of the House agriculture subcommittee on livestock, dairy and poultry. "Seed money put up by individual producers for the betterment of their own industry is vital."

"It is a fact of life that the American consumer wants to be sold," adds Rep. Arlan Stangeland (R-Minn.). "They want to be told and sold and if other commodities or other competing products are in the market selling, then agriculture needs to be selling too."

While most Americans probably are not consciously aware of these fee programs, more likely than not they are well acquainted with their results.

Remember the "Incredible Edible Egg"? Or "Beef. Real Food For Real People" -- the advertising campaign that featured Cybill Shepherd sexily talking about hamburgers and steak and macho James Garner grilling beef. How can you forget? Shortly after those ads began, Garner had heart-bypass surgery; Shepherd, meanwhile, was quoted in a national publication as saying that her newest beauty secret was "trying to stay away from red meat."

Then, there's pork -- now touted as "the other white meat" -- while the potato is acclaimed as "America's favorite vegetable" and honey is called "Nature's Natural Ingredient." Meanwhile, athletes, such as Cal Ripken Jr., have been seen and heard giving milk credit for their success. As the dairy commercials note: "Milk: It Does a Body Good."

Taken together with the more numerous state-mandated programs, there are about 350 state and federal promotional programs, covering more than 80 farm commodities and collecting more than $530 million annually, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which oversees the federally mandated programs.

Those numbers are certain to grow in the years ahead as commodities not yet covered set up similar campaigns. In addition to the pecan farmers, lime, soybean and mushroom growers are also seeking federally sanctioned programs.

The reason is simple, according to Daniel P. Haley, administrator of the USDA Agricultural Marketing Service. "They work. It's a very competitive world of advertising and promotion out there and those who have spent money have seen their sales increase and the public's overall perception of their commodity improve."

The Potato Board, for instance, was one of the first to record a dramatically improved image for its product. The board was founded in 1972, a time when potato consumption was dropping sharply. "People had poor images of potatoes," explains public-relations director Linda McCashion. About half of the public "considered the potato fattening and not particularly nutritious, so it was one of the first things to be cut on a diet."

For the next 15 years, the Potato Board ran advertisement after advertisement and met with food editor after food editor to clean up the potato's dingy image. Among other things, the potato people liked to point out that a medium potato had more potassium than a banana, a significant amount of fiber, absolutely no fat or sodium -- and only 110 calories.

Now, only 4 percent of Americans consider the potato fattening, McCashion says. Even more significantly, potato consumption has increased by nearly 15 percent, from 108 pounds per capita in the late 1960s to 124 pounds a year.

The National Dairy Promotion and Research Board has recorded similar achievements. Since its inception in 1983, the board has spent $80 million a year to promote milk and milk products. The result: "Dairy product consumption has risen a cumulative total of 12 percent since 1983, which is the largest and longest sustained consumption gain ever recorded," according to board chairman Ivan Strickler.

Despite the widespread support for the farmer-financed promotions, the increasing number of programs is beginning to prompt questions about their ultimate effectiveness among agricultural experts.

Geoff Becker, a specialist in agricultural policy for the Congressional Research Service, asked in a November 1989 memorandum to the House Agriculture Committee: "If the goal of commodity promotion is to alter consumer demand, do such efforts benefit or harm consumers? More specifically, do generic advertising and research help improve the products offered, increase competition among sellers, and enable the consumer to make more informed choices? Or are such activities merely an added cost of doing business -- one that ultimately raises retail prices?"

Farmers insist that the costs of these programs are being borne entirely by producers and not being passed on to consumers. As John Keeling, assistant director of national affairs for the American Farm Bureau Federation, explains: "The agricultural commodity producer must take the price of what's in the market. He doesn't set the price; it is determined by a whole lot of other factors. When the corn or wheat grower goes to sell, he is not able to go in there and bargain, saying he wants so much more to cover the {mandatory fee}. That ability is just not there."

Even so, a report by USDA's Economic Research Service suggests that the public may end up paying higher prices. "The goal of advertising is to increase sales at any price and to reduce consumers' sensitivity to price changes," says the July 1989 report. And at least initially, if the advertisements increase demand -- without increasing production -- consumers may "face higher prices."

"I guess you can say that any money spent on advertising and promotion is ultimately borne by the consumer," acknowledges Haley. But, he adds, "That goes with any product. In my mind, I don't see it as a significant problem. It's minor at best."

Along with the increase in research and promotion boards comes the concern that eventually there may be so many that they will conflict with one another and become counterproductive. "Given limited consumer income, if one commodity is to increase its share of total food budgets, it must do so at the expense of competing commodities," notes the USDA Economic Research Study.

"Ultimately your stomach is only so big," agrees Haley, who also notes "there are studies that suggest that sooner or later, no matter how much money you spend, there is a law of diminishing returns." But, Haley is quick to add, "I'm not sure we're there yet." At this point, he notes, every commodity group that has started a national campaign has seen positive results.

Still, not all farmers or producers endorse the federally sanctioned promotional boards, especially when they mandate fees from producers. (Although some federally approved boards permit refunds to those farmers who are opposed to the promotional efforts, the current legislative measures, including those for pecans, limes, mushrooms and soybeans, require all large producers and importers to pay up; those growers with small acreage or yield are usually exempted from the programs.)

The mandatory fee is why United Food Inc., one of the largest mushroom growers in the country, is opposed to the current legislation to set up a mushroom research and promotion board. Under the bill, growers would have to send one-quarter cent to the promotion board for every pound of mushrooms they sell (at a current price of 97 cents). The fee could escalate over the years, but could reach no more than 2 cents a pound.

"The fee would be fine so long as it was voluntary," says Dan Tankersley, executive vice president of United Foods. "A mandatory marketing order is essentially a tax and we're simply not in favor of that kind of legislation. We think we are better able to invest our money in promotion and research instead of turning our money over to a trade association."

One cattleman did refuse to pay the fee -- $1 for every head sold -- required by the Cattlemen's Beef Promotion and Research Board. Pennsylvania cattleman L. Robert Frame balked, calling the fee unconstitutional because it forced him to pay for advertising that he did not agree with. The government sued Frame, saying he owed $66,000, including late payment fees, for sales made at his auction house. Last year, a U.S. Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the government, finding that "maintenance of the beef industry ensures the American cattlemen's traditional way of life." The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

For the moment, at least, farmers like Frame and companies like United Foods appear to be in the minority -- especially as concerns about food safety increases.

"There have been environmental attacks, nutritional attacks, conflicting scientific studies about particular products," says Haley. "These programs give the industries an opportunity to go out with their side of the story and counteract bad or misleading information." It's no wonder then that the beef and pork industries are touting the nutritional benefits of their products in their current advertisements.

So get ready for the next onslaught of promotions. The National Watermelon Promotion Board, for example, just this spring started collecting its fees (2 cents from producers and 2 cents from the melons' first handlers for every 100 pounds). The purpose, according to the board's executive director William Watson: "to convince consumers that it's a fun fruit, and ok to eat when cool outside." Or, as a watermelon-board promotion notes, watermelon lovers now will be able to "spit their seed with dignity."