This time last year, Calvin Ritchie was standing in a dust field of drought-stunted corn, facing the loss of $100,000 if it didn't rain.
Last week Ritchie was standing on moist earth with corn up to his ears and a good chance of producing his best crop in years.
In between crops he has become something of a political activist, a rebel of sorts in an profession that is a dedicated to tradition and simplicity as it is to hard work and respect for the land. What happened to Ritchie was the American Agriculture Movement (AAM), the Colorado-born protest organization that swept across the nation and brought Ritchie and thousands of fellow farmers to Washington.
Six months after he stood in the bitter chill of a Capitol Hill protest. Ritchie has been through an eye-opening rollercoaster experience and his path through it explains a good deal about farming and the AAM protest that was born out of drought and low farm prices. What the movement brought can be measured largely in intangible: a new political awareness of farmers, some small political victories, and a new sense of community among people who pride themselves on thei individualism.
In Virginia, at least, the AAM today may be in danger of withering, itself a victim of good weather and higher prices. The same could be happening in farming areas accross the nation, according to Agriculture Department experts. Corp conditions are good generally, the USDA says, in sharp contrast to 1976 and 1977.
The "strike" that Ritchie and other AAM leaders called for in Washington last winter has failed to materialize here in the rolling green hills of Pied "strike" meant, other than a demand that farmers should quit planting crops or cut back their productions sharply.
A grin creeps across Ritchie's face today when he is asked if he ever believed that farmers would, in fact, "strike." "The word "strike" is kind of a bad word," he said. "We'd like to get away from it, have it be just the American Agriculture Movement."
But even without the "strike," the movement has made both political and sociological achievements that Ritchie and others will remember long after the memory of their baseball can and bib overall-clad marchers has faded.
Last year, Ritchie said. "So many farmers had their future on the line. There was gloom everywhere.The young farmers didn't want to go out and harvest what little they had. Everybody was looking for something."
"Then the movement came along," Ritchie said. It had begun to get publicity with demands for "full parity," another ill-defined term, that most farmers said meant higher prices, when Ritchie and some friends sat down the day after Thanksgiving to talk about the AAM.
"People in the movement really got close," said Ritchie, who put in another phone in his Fauquier Grain Co. office which became the AAM's Virginia State headquarters, coordinating the movement of farmers and tractors as they flowed toward the Capitol, 55 miles to the east.
"You can't believe the dedication of some of these farmers. You'd walk down the street and see the "STRIKE" caps and you knew your buddies," Ritchie said.
The older farm organizations like the Farm Bureau had become businesses, with paid staff and farmers like Ritchie didn't have any group to "belong" to Ritchie said.
In Virginia the AAM farmers became their own organization, raised $45,000 and discovered that even informally organized they could have political clout.
When the Fauquier County Board of Supervisors considered removing the personal property tax on farm vehicles and animals. Ritchie and his AAM friends took out full page ads in the local paper supporting the repeal and called or wrote to every farmer they could locate in the county.
They got 600 supporters out to the public hearing and not one person spoke out against the farm tax payers revolt. The tax was repealed.
An effort by the AAM activists to back Rufus Phillip of Fairfax County for the Democratic nomination to the U.S. Senate was less successful but the AAM and now is talking with Democratic Senate candidate Andrew P. Miller and his Republican opponent. Richard D. Obenshain. AAM leaders say both men are eager for their support.
Nationally the AAM has claimed some victories too. The Senate passed a farm bill that increased support far beyond levels sought by the Carter administration. The House killed the bill, but the White House was forced to increase the level of support in its proposal. AAM leaders noted.
"I think an impartial observer would have to say they had influence," said James C. Webster, director of the Agriculture Department's office of congressional and public affairs. "A lot of the things we would have done in one form or another, but it's fair to say we wouldn't have done quite as much. The collective results is a very good, workable farm program."
But as the AAM farmers were protesting in Washington, Fauquier, and elsewher several other things were happening back on the farms. In drought-stricken areas such as Virginia, federal subsidies were paying as much as two-thirds of feed bills of farmers who had lost their grain and grass crops and had nothing to feed livestock.
Most important, the Farmers Home Administration came through with 3 percent, seven-year loans that farmers could use to pay off 9 percent banknotes and keep going. Ritchie credits the loans with saving many young farmers working on rented land. "We give the government heck. But don't get me wrong, we appreciate things like that."
And spring came.
The AAM dropped its strike demand to a call for a production cut of 50 percent, but when the time came to plant few, if any, of the protesters followed through. Ritchie says he knows of no one who didn't plant.
What many farmers in the Virginia area did was take part in the government set-aside program, which requires that 10 percent of the prior year's corn acreage be idled in return for eligibility for federal loan and disaster relief programs. Farmers who take out additional acreage up to 20 percent can receive cash payments. Ritchie said he and many area farmers took the full 20 percent production cut.
Nationally, according to the USDA, corn planting is down 5 percent this year and wheat down 11 percent.
Despite his prospects for a better crop this year Ritchie remains bitter toward President Carter. "Unless his attitude changes, even three good years wouldn't change me. We think the Carter administration is geared to a cheap food policy. They're against the farmer," Ritchie said.
As to the future of the AAM, Ritchie said: "I'm always optimistic. I expect the movement to go on as long as we're farming. But a good year will make it harder. The better off financially, the less interest. That's human nature."
USDA's Webster said, "It's hard to say what their future is. The movement produced some real leaders, bright, sharp leaders. But it contains a lot of anti-institutional sentiment."
"Something like this comes along every 10 or 20 years," Webster said, and then usually vanishes.
"The real value of the AAM was increased visibility of the farmer in the nonfarm sector. It did more than all the farm organizations and the USDA had done in 10 years," Webster said.
Ritchie agrees with that and adds that the farmers also learned another lesson. "We've always looked up to our leaders - congressmen, the administration . . . But we've gone to hearings and talked to them and they weren't any smarter than you or I. We're not impressed, anymore."