FOR DECADES, the American government has sought to grow more food with fewer people.

This policy has brought us a grotesque glut of food -- mountains of moldy wheat, caves full of cheese -- while causing untellable distress to the farmers of America. It has also moved us ever farther away from social roots and moral values whose importance have been recognized since the Roman Empire.

This might be blamed on decades of relatively liberal thinking about farm policy. But as America's farmers slide toward the precipice and Congress' farm bill drifts toward irrelevance, it seems that the new conservative establishment as well is unable to grasp the real situation.

Part of the problem is that the farm crisis splits conservatism right down the middle.

On the one side stand economic conservatives, who viewfood as the most important product of agriculture. They give priority to the principles of limited government and free markets and let the social consequences fall as they may. As U.S. Secretary of Agriculture John Block explains, "The number of farms in this country has declined for the last 50 years . . . We will lose more during the next four years," and government should not stop the change.

On the other side are the political stepchildren known as the social conservatives. They see people, not food, as the principal product of agriculture. In their view, the family farm is the foundation of republican virtue and social order. "It's almost a public utilitarian value to maintain the family farm," explains Charles Grassley, senator from Iowa. As the late Harvard sociologist Carle C. Zimmerman once put it, "the important aspect of family farms is not the farm but the family."

Of course, this kind of thinking lacks the aegis of liberal statistics and social engineering. It also lacks the hardheaded tone of conservative free-market economics. Furthermore, it raises fears that we could become like France, spending billions to preserve what might be called a peasant romance; or we could become a series of states like Wisconsin, with its cosseted dairy farms churning out butter that no one will eat.

But it is time to change the terms of the argument. It is also time to stop ignoring millenia of civilization, and the myths and beliefs that are rooted in farming. We should look at what farmers have meant as well as what they have produced, and we should ponder why we have largely forgotten a great moral tradition as we move towards destroying it for mere economic reasons.

In America the social-conservative tradition goes back to Thomas Jefferson's well- known endorsement of a nation of yeoman farmers, each working his own piece of land.

"Cultivators of the earth," Jefferson wrote to John Jay, "are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country, and wedded to its liberty and interests, by the most lasting bonds."

When agrarian radicalism, or the Populist movement, first emerged in the United States during the 1890s it stressed these same virtues of the family farm and gave emphasis to rural, grass-roots democracy.

Similar views were expressed by the so- called Southern Agrarians in the volumes "I'll Take My Stand" (1928) and "Who Owns America?" (1936)

In the latter book, Andrew Lytle argued that farming, unlike any other occupation, should be considered as "a way of life," one deserving special attention from the state. Farmers, he reasoned, did not share "the spiritual sterilization, and often the physical, which comes from the modern technique of factory and city labor: the dissociation between work and the life of the senses."

Another anchor for this doctrine was Roman Catholicism, in organizations such as the National Catholic Rural Life Conference. "Only that stability which is rooted in one's holding," Pope Pius XII explained in 1941, "makes of the family the vital and most perfect and fecund cell of society, joining up in a brilliant manner in progressive cohesion the present and future generations."

Through 1950, much analysis of this question was left to the sociologists of rural life.

A study of the "human crop" born into a German Catholic parish in Kansas between 1891 and 1930 found a population characterized by "love of home and family life." Large families were common, those couples having completed their fertility cycle averaging 5.6 children. Divorces were few. A similar study of 50 farm families in Illinois found them "happy and successful," their outstanding characteristics being "love of the land with its way of life, and the closeness with which they work, play, and plan together." Ninety percent of the wives gave as their goals the care and education of children, a happy home life and owning the farm.

Farmers, it seemed, were the moral backbone of the country. Yet there was trouble ahead. The farming population, which still numbered 32.2 million in 1935 (25.3 percent of the total population), had fallen to 24.4 million 10 years later, only 17.5 percent of all Americans.

For a moment in the early '50s, it looked to some as if we could have the best of both worlds -- the agrarian virtues and the corporate big-farm efficiency that was decreasing the numbers of the virtuous.

The central figure here was Eisenhower's secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson. He shared common sentiments about the value of rural life. "The country is a good place to rear a family. It is a good place to teach the basic virtues that have helped to build the nation." Yet he was also committed to the transformation of farming from a class-bound, peasant-like entity into a modern business enterprise.

Foreshadowing one side of the conservative split we are seeing in 1985, Benson said: "Agriculture is not so much an important segment of our population as of our free-enterprise system. It should be permitted to operate as such."

Officials more concerned with material than moral goals confidently projected that the number of farmers could drop to only 500,000 and still meet the food and fiber needs for domestic and foreign markets. Federal policy was reshaped, often in subtle ways, to encourage the consolidation of small farms into larger units. As the phrase attributed to Benson had it: "Get big or get out."

Benson also believed that the farm community was no longer needed as a wellspring of virtue. He pointed to accelerating dispersal of city people into suburban and rural areas. In Michigan, Benson explained, nonfarm people living outside towns and cities now actually outnumbered farmers. Many farmers, moreover, held part-time jobs in industry.

There was, moreover, a growing body of sociological evidence that seemed to support such a belief. The hottest subject in rural sociology circles by the early 1950's was burgeoning suburbia. In 1953, researchers at the University of Texas enthusiastically described the emergence of "a new family form" in "the urban fringe," one which seemed "able to maintain sufficient fertility and integration to satisfy the (Carle) Zimmerman requisites and yet function adequately in the urban community."

Young couples appeared to be pouring out of the cities and into the suburbs, where the birth and marriage rates were soaring, the decrease in the age of marriage accelerating and the historic functions of the family seemingly strengthened. Another study found that 83 percent of the new suburbanites were intensely and intentionally "familistic," committed to a primary investment in family life.

It appeared to some observers that the farm was dethroned as the wellspring of family virtue, solid marriages and children. The middle-class ethos of the postwar suburb had effected an extraordinary reconciliation between family values and the demands of modern urban life.

But those observers were wrong. Under a fresh wave of ideological challenge, the new familism crumbled.

With concern about "overpopulation," for example, large families fell out of favor. So did children generally, as the large-scale entry of married women into the labor force was politicized and produced its inevitable consequences. The divorce rate soared and pornography and abortion became common features on the national landscape.

Retrospectively, it also appears likely that "the new familism" had been caused partly by the migration of farm people to the suburbs. This flow had begun in 1941, with an estimated 15 million people taking part in the last great contribution of human capital by America's farms to America's cities.

By the early 1960s, too, some rural sociologists exhibited a curious new hostility toward the very rural families that the discipline had once celebrated. Lee Burchinal, affiliated with the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, told a farm audience that the old rural family system was being displaced by an "emerging family system" which had as its model "college-educated, professionally employed urban couples."

This system, he said, involved a new commitment to full equality between the sexes, a decline in the division of labor between men and women, a more democratic, "person- centered" view of children, increases in sexual experimentation and nonmarital sexual contacts and more divorce based on a new respect for "interpersonal relationships" rather than on the "functional economic interdependence and the social and legal sanctions" dictated by the "dead hand" of rural culture, which held traditional families together.

New sociological evidence, he indicated, showed that farm living produced unhappy women and lower levels of marital and personal satisfaction.

Lauren Soth, editorial page editor of the Des Moines Register and Tribune, joined in the debunking of rural America. The migration of farm people cityward, he said, was solid evidence "that the joys of the bucolic life will not offset much difference in hard cash."

Moreover, Soth said, farmers should no longer be viewed as the bulwark of democracy. He pointed to opinion polls during "the McCarthy spasm of infringements on individual freedom" which showed farmers to be "less opposed" to McCarthyism than other groups. Like most agricultural professionals, Soth concluded that the needed adjustment was still to reduce the number of farmers.

With these and other attacks, America came to lose its vision of the farm community as the reservoir of familism and virtue.

Also radically diminished was the notion of farmers representing special political value.

In the 190s, as the farm population fell from 23 million to 15.6 million, a mere 8.7 percent of the nation, pressure grew to end the disproportionate representation of the rural population in state legislatures. In 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that congressional districts and both houses of the state legislatures must be apportioned accoring to population, not geographic area.

Freed from the rural yoke, state legislatures in the farm states and South tossed out blue laws, lifted restrictions on alcohol sales, loosened divorce and sodomy laws and purged other such "anachronisms." Rural America gasped, and died.

Gone, for better or worse, were the last political barriers raised against modernity and secularity by the forces of rural tradition.

In a richly symbolic act, one response of the federal government to the 1985 farm problem has been the provision of a grant to the state of Iowa for free vasectomies for troubled rural men.

"Our argument (in seeking the grant)," said one state health official, "was that this was a particularly good idea in Iowa because of the high unemployment rate and the problems of farmers." Admittedly, the welfare- state logic here is impeccable: Still too many farmers? Sterilize them!

Surprisingly, despite recurrent troubles, the farming community continues to exhibit the traditional virtues of home and family. In 1983, for example, farm women ages 18 to 34 continued to be more fertile than nonfarm women, averaging 2.45 children per woman compared to 2.07 in the cities. Where 13.3 percent of urban women ages 35 to 44 were currently divorced, only 2.1 percent of farm women were so situated. Ninety-three percent of farm children lived with two parents, compared to 73.7 percent of city children.

But there aren't enough of them any longer to serve as a reservoir of moral worth. The farm population now numbers 5,787,000 persons, only 2.5 percent of the population. Even those remaining are disproportionately old. Among the non-farm population in 1983, 9 percent were ages 25 to 29; on the farm, only 5.6 percent were.

In short, America's farms increasingly resemble old-age homes. We have exhausted their human capital.

So what's to be done? To begin with, we must recognize that our nation's family farmers can no longer serve as our peasant class, reinvigorating an otherwise failing social order. The human numbers are simply not there. As moral actors, we urbanites are now on our own.

Moreover, where the market dictates, large scale farming units, taking advantage of marketing and land management professionals, may dominate the future. Yet if Americans want to preserve a modest number of family farms for symbolic or emotional reasons, we do have options.

First, we could follow the West European approach and deliver guaranteed incomes, disguised as price supports, to our farming class. France, Denmark and Sweden, for example, have maintained viable peasant communities through such measures. Indeed, so has the United States among its dairy farmers, who have enjoyed years of relatively generous income maintenance and so have been less affected by the recent agricultural downturn. Prosperous compared to its grain, beef and hog-oriented neighbors, rural Wisconsin may be our last healthy peasant state. The cost, of course has been several billion dollars annually.

Second, and more simply, we could end USDA hostility toward the more widely scattered by nonetheless real peasant class that exists in America: the thousands of families still tilling 20 to 200 acres on low-capital, product-diversified small farms. Despite 30 years of federal effort to ease these "disadvantaged" farm families out of business, their number actually seems to be growing.

Small Farmer's Journal, a tabloid published out of Eugene, Ore. for the past eight years, now counts 25,000 readers and serves as a forum for those committed to family values, small-scale farming and the simple rural life.

The Amish and rural Mennonites are no longer confined to a quaint corner of Pennsylvania, but are found in growing colonies throughtout the Middle West. By avoiding heavy power machinery, electricity and expensive chemicals and by using the labor of their numerous children, costs are kept low and most Amish farmers are turning respectable profits.

These farmer-citizens ask little from the federal government: Leave us alone, and redirect some federal agricultural research at the land-grant universities toward small- scale farming units.

In comparison to the farm bill now emerging from Congress, such requests are modest indeed.