High interest rates have affected most Americans, but the hardest hit are the farmers, who routinely go into debt at the start of the growing season, hoping to pay off at harvest time.
Bankers are limiting credit to the best risks, freezing out those who need it most -- small farmers who, unlike the agribusiness giants, have been most badly squeezed by the rising price of chemicals and fuels, and don't have the resources to ride out the manipulations of the commodity markets the way the big boys do.
In southeastern Colorado, one of those small farmers has found a way to get around that. It's harvest time, and most of the area's farmers are working till sunset and beyond to bring in their crops of sorghum and millet. But Gene Schroeder won't be spending much time warming his tractor seat this fall.
Schroeder, a tobacco-chewing, politically active leader of the past two winters' bitter farm-protest movement, has given up hope that the bureaucrats and legislators in Washington will give the family farmer a break. He has turned to moonshining.
Unlike his predecessors in the hills of Appalachia, Schroeder isn't making corn likker for human consumption. He's making alcohol for consumption by his neighbor's automobiles, trucks and tractors -- with the blessing -- if not the wholehearted support -- of federal authorities.
Last winter, after one final, futile tractorcade to Washington, Schroeder decided to embark on an agricultural career that would, he hopes, be immune to the vagaries of the commodities exchange. For the past eight months, he has been working 10 hours a day, often seven days a week, building and perfecting a still to produce a sure-fire "crop" -- alcohol -- from grain and agricultural wastes.
It was an inventiveness born of necessity. The arid acreage on which his family earned a decent living two decades ago, growing "broom corn" largely for the husks that went into the manufacture of brooms, had become profitless because of cheaper imports from Mexico.
At first he struggled to find new crops that would offer a dependable source of income. "Now I've pretty well quit," Schroeder told our associate Hal Bernton, as they drove through his sparse fields of grain. "We went out and farmed the land, but it don't take much time to farm it the way we do now. We don't spend much money on it so, we won't get burned. I'm not going to be a slave to this systme anymore.
Instead, Schroeder, his brother Bill and their father, Derrel, combined their skills and resources to construct a small still in an abandoned barn that sits in a field of winter wheat. At the end of each day, they ease onto tattered old sofas in a corner of the barn to munch on brown-bag suppers and discuss ways to make their still more efficient.
The fermentation tanks have been wrapped in heavy insulation to keep the heat from leaking out. The distilling coils have been tested and redesigned. A herd of pigs is penned up behind the barn to fatten on the leftover mash.
When the still was finally fired up, it produced 25 gallons of duel-grade alcohol an hour. One Sunday, while Schroeder's wife took the children to church, the still churned out more than 300 gallons of alcohol.
As Schroeder sees it, an alcohol still is one way to fight the farmer's traditional victimization by the middleman. "With alcohol," he explained, "you by-pass the processors and send a product manufactured on the farm directly to the consumer. When you do this, you control the market."
For this reason, of course, the big boys are not about to leave the likes of Gene Schroeder, with his $50,000 still, alone in the fuel-alcohol field. Internation engineering firms. smelling profits, are busy drawing up blueprints for multimillion-dollar distilleries.
One of the companies is the Davy-McKee Corp. An engineer for the firm told Bernton. "We tried to develop small, $100,000 units, and came to the conclusion that a true factory-type operation would not be economical on that scale."
So the big boys are concentrating on mammoth alcohol plants to compete with one-horse operations like Schroeder's. Their financing will come primarily from the same New York bankers who have backed agribusiness conglomerates against the small farmers in the past.
Schroeder stubbornly believes that his kind of small alcohol still will be able to compete with the giants in a way that small farms are not able to in grain production. He bases his hope on the relatively low start-up costs, with no more than a one-time loan for the necessary equipment (instead of never-ending annual crop-loan payments), low transportation costs, the absence of middlemen and the abundance of cheap raw material. Even a crop ruined by weather -- the bane of a farmer's existence -- can become a saleable product to an alcohol still.
Fuel-alcohol production, Schroeder feels, may enable the small farmer, at long last, to thumb his nose at the banks and grain dealers that now grind them down.