Drought. Disaster. Emergency Relief. The pronouncements conjured images of the once-plush Virginia countryside turning to dust, of cattle dying in the fields, of governments mobilizing to rush aid to embattled farmers.

But the reality in Virginia, as in many other parts of the nation has been quite different.

Since Gov. Mills E. Godwin declared a state of emergency from July 7 to Aug. 15, officials said, the amount of emergency drought-relief money that has flowed to Virginia's farmers has been exactly zero.

John M. Richman, a Shenandoah County cattleman, expressed the views of many farmers in hard-hit parts of the state: "There isn't anything good about the relief program that I've found yet. I don't know of anyone who has got anything. You can only be eligible for feed if you don't have anything whatsoevr. You got to be broke to get the loans."

The facts appear to show an extreme case of bureaucratic bungling and official fiasco.

But again the reality is quite different.

Federal aid will reach drought-striken Virginia farmers. They will get cash to make up for some of their lost crops. They will get low interest loans to tide them over until another year. They likely will get subsidies to help buy the feed they were unable to grow this summer.

But it will all happen slowly.

It is a classic example of the confusion and misunderstanding that surround the complex, jerry-built jumble of federal relief programs that has grown up over the years.

"I've called the system a farce and (Agriculture Secretary Bob) Bergland has called it a disaster, and it is somewhere in between," said U.S. Agriculture Deputy Secretary John C. White. "I don't know of anybody who doesn't think we need a better program."

In Virginia, the problems started with the blast of publicity that accompanied the governor's declaration and the federal eligibility announcements that followed. Usually there was a paragraph saying: "Farmers will now be able to get . . ." But it was not that simple.

"I believe we raised the expectations of the programs before those responsible on the local level were fully geared up to handle it," said Raymond Vaughn, Virginia's deputy commissioner of agriculture.

The key agency in many of the programs is the federal Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, which has a state headquart in Richmond and 91 offices across the state.

"One of the programs that was announced was the drought and flood conservation program," said Wilson T. Leggett, state ASCS administrative officer. Unfortunately, money for that program was not released to the states until Friday, so when farmers read about it and came in to sign up earlier, they found there was no program, he said. Now, with $600,000 for 65 counties designated as drought impact areas, the ASCS can begin making the grants for up to 80 per cent of the cost of repairing the drought damage.

Then there is the disaster payment program, under which farmers who have lost part of their crop allotments dating from 1961. A farmer might lose half the corn on the 500 acres he planted, but he could be reimbursed only the acreage in his allotment, which might well be only 100 acres. At most, he could get payments for half of the 100 acres, when his actual loss was half of 500 acres.

This is further complicated by the fact that Congress has not completed action on this year's farm bill, so the program is not operating yet. As the bill now stands in a conference committee, the rules will be changed to provide payments based on actual planting. So farmers may be able to qualify for considerable aid on this year's losses, but not until after COngress completes actions on the bill this fall.

A hay transportation assistance program was announced but never put into effect, apparently because of fraud in the program in the Midwest last year and a decision that it would not be necessary here.

This left one major program working - the emergency feed programs. So far there have been about 1,400 applications, but no cash payments through Aug. 15, an ASCS official siad. The program reimburses farmers for part of the cost of feed they have to buy for livestock and is designed to keep a cattleman's foundation herd going.

But this is an emergency program, and while Virginia may have a drought, it does not have an emergency. There is plenty of feed in the state now. THe shortages will come this winter, and at this point the program is only to run until December.

At the Farmers Home Administration, the situation is similiar. Phelps Walker, a farmer programs specialist, said farmers who have lost at least 20 per cent of a major crop can qualify for 3 per cent, seven-year loans up to the amount of the loss. To get the loan, the farmer must have the currence of this present banker to get the loan, and Walker said that his conversations with bankers indicate that they will be willing to agree.

But so far, the FHA still is accepting and processing loan applications. Approval of the first loan is still a week or so away.

The Small Business Association announced Wednesday that farmers could apply to it for 3 per cent loans, but htose can be granted only after a farmer has attempted to get loans from local banks and from the FHA.

THe multitude of programs and agencies and changes in farm policy have totally frustated cattelmen, said Richman, who is chairman of the Board of Supervisorss and president of the county farm bureau in Shenandoah. "My opinion is that we have an administration that don't know what they are trying to do," he said. "There isn't anybody in our county that has any confidence in the (Carter) administration."

Richman recalled drought years in the 1960s when the government brought in trains loaded with grain to hard-hit farmers.

That was in the days when the federal government owned and stored billions of bushels of grain and was happy to sell it to anybody. Now the government is out of the grain-storage business and is trying to run its relief program through a combination of its agencies and the free market.

A farmer with a different view than that of Clarence L. Tardy of Rockbridge. Tardy, the administrator of a 17-state region for the ASCS from July, 1976, until he was replaced in February by the Carter administration, said, "I'm in a little better position than most farmers to see how this works, having been on both sides of it.

"These [ASCS] workers are consciientious people, but there are a lot of farmers who don't know how the system works and don't understand the regulations," he said.

George Jones, Godwin's state coordinator of emergency services, said, "I think with the laws and authority on the books, we have gotten out the word and administered the programs as well as possible.

"But we feel the laws and programs are not as responsive as they ought to be."

U.S. officials agree, with deputy secretary White saying, "Our program is not realistic. We think it ought to be reevaluated."

White is backing legislation that would replace many of the current programs with a federally backed, nationwide crop isurance program under which a farmer would pay a premium and be insured against the loss of a major portion of his crop.

The system allows local officials, governors, congressmen and administrations to grant disaster designation with great fanfare and political benefit.

"I don't mean to belittle the need for help in Virginia." White said, "but look at it from a national viewpoint.

"We are going to have one of the three largest grain harvests in our history this year, yet out of 3,000 farming counties, 2,284 have been designated disasters this year."

"What that says is that we're designating a lot of areas that are not disasters." he said. "Our programs is not realistic."