"THEY TOLD ME to call," the conversation begins, almost without fail. The voice usually is tremulous and uncertain, crackling in from an obscure corner of rural America, reaching out to a big-city newspaper for help or guidance or just a word of reassurance.

Short of a trip to the midlands, where farmers are holding protest rallies and blocking foreclosure sales, the long-distance telephone easily is becoming the simplest, quickest way to assess the stress and the economic pain that are besetting American farmers.

"They told me to call," it begins. The undefined "they" is an Americanism for gaining entree. It is the spurned farmer's idiomatic way of saying he is at wit's end and that maybe, through a newspaper in the capital, he can get the attention of officialdom.

One day it is a farmer from Montana, urging the paper to investigate the policies of the Farm Credit System. Another day it is a farmer's wife from Ohio, wanting to know how to escape the tightening economic noose. Minnesota is calling now, a cafe owner saying that her town is going to pot and that outsiders seem not to care.

Off and on for three years these calls have come to the newspaper as the farm economy has continued on its rocky course, despite federal farm-program spending of more than $30 billion. It is as though the money has made no difference. In the beginning, most of the callers complained of problems in getting loans from the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA).

But now, as credit pressures have reached beyond those borrowers of last resort who deal with the FmHA, the calls come more frequently, an average of perhaps one a day, stranger reaching out to stranger for the kind word or the bit of advice that might save a farm.

The people who call now increasingly are farmers or farmers' wives who fit somewhere in the middle section of American agriculture -- full-time family farmers who rely entirely on the soil to sustain themselves. Of the country's 2.4 million farmers, roughly 650,000 of them fit into this middle range.

Increasingly, the calls are freighted with anxiety. The voices speak of fear of the future, disillusionment with government, desperation over the prospect of losing a farm that has been in the family for generations. Young farmers, particularly, in a credit bind because they owe too much, get on the phone.

They tell of country banks that are tightening the credit screws, darkening the hope of financing a crop for one more year. They talk with concern about what is happening to their country communities, where they will go and what they will do if the farm fails. The erosion of hope is dangerous, depressing.

Newspapers, for all they are cursed and for all they are distrusted, always have been this society's traditional, informal court of last appeal. When the congressman won't help, when the FmHA supervisor laughs the farmer out the door, when the bank turns a cold shoulder to the loan applicant, the calls start coming.

Those calls often mean that the system isn't working, isn't responding as it is supposed to. When a farmer is rejected by the FmHA, he is supposed to be told why and he is supposed to be told that he has appeal rights. Often he does not know of this until too late, and then he phones the newspaper. If today's calls mean anything, there is massive systemic failure and paralysis in the institutions designed to serve farm country.

"They told me to call you," the conversation begins, and one more time it is a painful recitation of a family sundered by stress, a country businessman trying to keep his head above water, a town left without a bank, a farmer who can't find credit.

These daily telephone correspondents, sophisticated businessmen-farmers in many instances, do not understand why their government follows policies that they think keep their farm prices low, why the administration resists rural legislators' efforts to get federal credit assistance, why it allows land and machinery values to continue on a deflationary course that shatters lives and paper empires built on inflation and high expectations.

The small farmers don't call.

Statistics from the Agriculture Department say that most of these small operators subsidize themselves with off-farm jobs. They produce and they contribute, but for the most part their credit needs are not so great.

The big farmers tend not to call, either, although many of the biggest operators who produce the bulk of the country's grains have credit problems as well. Perhaps too proud, perhaps able to find other financing, they don't call.

"These people won't give up the land," a woman from the Midwest said the other day. "They give up the land, they give up their homes. There's nowhere to go. They won't allow themselves to be forced."

Another caller talked of plots -- and with more and more frequency, there is a belief that a great conspiracy is working to wrest the land from the little people and concentrate it in the hands of the wealthy. True or not, the belief is there and it is a powerful force in the country.

The dairy farmer from Ohio is a regular. Last June, the state office of the FmHA approved the loan request that was denied at the county level. The money did not come. FmHA say it would be October and then January. It did not come. FmHA then said it would be early February. That was changed again to mid-March, almost too late to meet his spring planting needs. He may get the money or not.

A 60-year-old woman called from Minnesota, nearly in tears. With fear-struck voice she told of the imperiled family farm, the disabled veteran son who can't get government help, her small-town cafe about to go broke, her congressman's secretary rude and unhelpful.

"Where will we go? What will we do?" she pleaded. "What will happen to this town? All the farmers do is sit around and drink coffee. Yesterday was Sunday and you know how many meals I served? Three breakfasts and one dinner. All the rest was coffee. We can't make it serving just coffee -- and the farm doesn't pay."

"They told me to call you," she had begun, but there was little that could be said in response. It hurt all day long.