The miles traveled now reach into the tens of thousands, untold nights in austere country motels stretch into a long numbing blur, the grease-heavy food of the crossroads cafes is devoid of taste. But that has been the price of admission to an extraordinary discovery.

The discovery is really just an asterisk to a news reporter's assignment since 1981 covering American agriculture while the industry has been shaken to its roots by economic uncertainty.

There is great pain in the countryside -- a pain that comes as much from the erosion of traditional optimism as from the wrenching loss of farms passed from generation to generation with stewardship and love. Asking the questions that unleash a farmer's tears of grief over the kitchen table is often more than an outsider can bear.

Wherever the reporter goes in farm country, doors swing open. There is unabashed eagerness to tell the story of an eroding rural structure; a huge wish that the nation as a whole, and Washington in particular, would listen and learn and act to keep stability in agriculture.

Yet for all that pain, a certain reassurance emerges. One returns from each of these journeys moved by a sense of country and people that speaks of strength, indomitable spirit and adaptability, a special side of the American character. It speaks of a continuing belief that right must always triumph.

Beyond the spirit are the people themselves, an army of unforgettable human beings -- some of them farmers, many of them not. All are related to the business of growing food and caring for the land; many are people who are the power of the country, fighting unsung battles and winning unsung victories. From the memories and old notebooks, these are a few of those people. THE BLACK GURU

As soon as the car carrying a black man named Thomas Vaughns turned up the bumpy lane, the white farmer and has wife were out of the house waving a greeting. When the car stopped, the couple clustered around Vaughns' window and chattered like magpies. An old friend had come back; the excitement was palpable.

Inside, around the kitchen table, there was coffee and small talk and a lot of laughter. Thomas Vaughns, it became clear, had made a difference in the life of this struggling Arkansas farm family. There seemed to be no limit to the appreciation and respect that he had won with his knowledge.

This family had been going deeper and deeper in debt, growing cotton and soybeans that brought no price, when they crossed paths with Thomas Vaughns. He showed them, step by step, how to turn a truck garden into a lucrative alternative that would be their salvation. The debts were paid off; solvency became the norm.

At another farm, run by a large black family, Vaughns got a similar greeting. He was here on this warm winter morning to show them how to prune the blackberries he had counseled them to grow to augment their income. Father, mother, sons and daughters crowded around as Vaughns carefully snipped one cane after another.

A day with Vaughns in the country south of Pine Bluff turned out to be a moving experience, for wherever one went with this modest man, it was to be drawn into an aura of love and understanding. Black or white, the farm families he visited saw Vaughns as a special person. His stock in trade was knowledge, and he handed it away unstintingly.

For years, Vaughns was a county extension agent in the Delta country between Memphis and Little Rock. He showed poor farmers how to produce cash crops, helped them set up cooperatives and farmers' markets. He worked to help his clients find out about state markets. Vaughns showed them how to survive.

Then he was promoted to the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, a formerly segregated school, and assigned as the extension horticulturist for a 14-county area surrounding Pine Bluff. There, he has done on a wider basis what he began in one small Delta county.

Thomas Vaughns would never say so, for that is not his way, but his quiet work has changed peoples' lives in inspiring ways. There have been no headlines and no testimonial dinners. Just an aura of love and appreciation on country lanes in Arkansas. THE CONSERVATIONIST

Max Miller was 10 or 12 years old, growing up in southwest Iowa, when he made a great discovery. He learned that if he built crude small dams in the rainwater gullies washing topsoil off his father's farm, the soil would stop washing away. The ditches would fill, grass would grow and the Miller cows could graze peacefully.

Miller's discovery was that soil must be husbanded if a farm is to remain productive. The conservation ethic was somehow implanted, although his father was only a reluctant participant in the youngster's schemes. When Max Miller went out to farm on his own, his entire life became regulated by that desire to protect the soil.

Miller, now 67, continues each year to make the costly improvements on his 460-acre farm near Griswold that have turned the place into conservation model. This year he will have 96 acres of corn and 70 acres of soybeans, all planted with techniques that preserve the topsoil. The rest will be soil-building grass that helps feed about 80 cows and calves.

Miller could make more money by farming the place more intensively, but he does not bend to the temptation. To do so would put the land under stress and Miller is guided by a goal: "I believe in this. I hope to leave a few more inches of topsoil on this farm than what I found when I bought it."

Miller -- a man of impressive physique and power -- stirred some waves around Cass County in 1982 when he was quoted about fellow farmers' attitudes. Some neighbors and the coffee drinkers at the local eatery were downright resentful.

"I don't think we'll get this conservation job done until it's mandatory," he had said. "Greed is one word that fits in here. These farmers know what they're doing here. They say they can do as they please. The job for some would be easier if we got a fair price for our crops, but in the end we are stewards of this land."

Miller has not changed. Now in his 25th year as an elected commissioner on the county soil-conservation district, he still preaches the lesson learned by a young boy damming gullies. His life is in the soil, which is why he plans to keep farming another 15 years, and it doesn't bother him that he hasn't made much money in agriculture.

"I started with nothing and I've still got it," he said.

Miller is proud of his farm, but there's something else more important. Four years ago, he was uncertain about the future because his son, Nathan, then 13, was not inclined toward farming. Today at 17, the boy is about to finish high school and he seems to be changing his mind.

"The boy has a big interest in conservation. He's been real observant and he knows when farmers are doing it the wrong way," Miller said. "I feel good about the farm. I feel good about the boy. If he decides to stay, we'll expand a little, get some feeder pigs maybe. I've already bid on some extra land."

An important torch is being passed in Griswold, Iowa. THE ORGANIZER

There was something in the air, here at the top of the stairs in a rickety low-rent building in Toledo's barrio, that said Baldemar Velasquez eventually would succeed, no matter how the deck seemed stacked against him. His intensity and conviction were almost palpable, his devotion unquestionable.

There were exhortative banners on the walls, stacks of leaflets strewn about, earnest young people working on mailing lists, and some delightfully insouciant posters depicting Campbell's "Cream of Exploitation" soup. From this unlikely venue, Velasquez and his Farm Labor Organizing Committee (FLOC) were trying to energize a nationwide boycott of the great soup company's products.

The boycott began in 1979 but it made scant impact. Now it was 1982 and Velasquez still had no intention of giving up. FLOC had little money, few members, no influence with the media, no champions in Congress or the state capitals. But it was going ahead with the campaign because Velasquez was determined that it had to be done.

FLOC chose Campbell as its target because of its national identity. But the campaign involved other big names in food processing like Libby, Heinz and Hunt-Wesson. The issue was their resistance to FLOC demands that the migrant workers who picked the tomatoes and cucumbers be paid better wages and benefits.

There is no harder, no more exploitive, no more impoverishing work than that of the migrant farm laborer. Of course, there have been reforms here and there, but the poor living conditions, the lack of health care and sanitation remain essentially unchanged for the toilers who make Americans the most amply fed people in history.

Baldemar Velasquez grew up in this milieu. He traveled each year with his family from their home in Texas to the vegetable and fruit fields of the Midwest, leading the endemic hand-to-mouth existence. Out of money and unable to return home, the family settled in Ohio in the 1960s.

Velasquez, then about 20, and his father founded FLOC in 1967. "We were really naive when we began," he remembered. "We had problems with minimum wages and with living conditions in the migrant camps. I thought we only had to point out the problems and they would be solved. It dawned on me that the farmers and migrant-aid programs were not going to do what was needed."

Yet FLOC's campaign endured. "This is very slow, progress takes time," Velasquez said, "but we intend to stick with it. My satisfaction is to prove these farmworkers can represent themselves."

The epilogue is appropriate. In March, 1986, the Campbell Soup Co., Ohio and Michigan growers and FLOC signed an agreement that achieved what Baldemar Velasquez began fighting for two decades earlier. It was an agreement that met the needs of all three sides. Progress takes time, as the man said. THE WINNER WHO LOST

Nothing is more important in the arid West than control of the water that irrigates the rich farming valleys. Men fight over the water because it is the power that generates wealth, influences politicians and determines the shape of society.

This was not foreseen in 1902 when Congress determined to irrigate the West as a way of putting small-sized farmers on the land. The reclamation act made the deserts bloom and it put families to work in agriculture, much in keeping with Jefferson's yeoman-tiller concept.

But the law soon was perverted. Large farming interests, particularly in California, controlled more and more of the water. Small farmers the law was intended to help were squeezed out. Others who wanted to share in the federally subsidized water could not get in.

In the 1950s and 1960s small farmers and activists started to agitate for change. They wanted government to enforce the law that limited an individual farmer's federal irrigation subsidy to 160 acres and required the owner to live on the land. Many of the irrigation users were operating baronial estates of thousands of acres, all with the cheap federal water.

The activism became organized as National Land for People and its leader turned out to be Berge Bulbulian, who grew grapes on the Fresno County farm that his Armenian immigrant forebearers built without federal water.

Bulbulian was a perfect choice. He was a good farmer, content to till no more than 150 acres, committed to the idea that the nation would be better off with more small farmers. He also was an imposing presence: strikingly handsome with a handlebar moustache, lean and muscled, dramatically articulate.

When the agitation failed, Bulbulian's ragtag group went to court, charging the government had not enforced the 1902 law. In 1976 a federal judge held that National Land for People had made its case. The next year, an appeals court upheld that ruling. It appeared that major change was on the way, with the prospect of huge holdings being broken up and more water made available to more farmers.

But the big growers didn't roll over and die. They turned to friends in Washington and in 1982 Congress revised the old reclamation law. It directed that the irrigators pay higher prices for their federal water, but it left the big holdings intact and it allowed absentee operators to continue to control the lucrative farming areas. National Land for People had lost.

Berge Bulbulian fought the good fight. Sometime later, sitting in his comfortable kitchen, he showed no bitterness, no animosity, only regret at the loss of what might have been. "How California is run is very important to the rest of the country," he said. "I interpret free enterprise as an opportunity to start. Most of the growers around here see it as an opportunity to get as big as you want."

"We would have had a more vital community out here if we had won the water battle. But our efforts were not wasted. We educated a lot of people. The bill they finally passed was better than what would have been without a National Land for People. They will pay more for water."

Losers often are winners. And vice-versa. THE FAMILY FARMER

Not even Disney could have drawn this picture.

The house and barns sit at the foot of a mountain, overlooking a sweep of valley. Fruit trees line the narrow road on one side of the farmstead. A huge garden stretches out behind. Late in the afternoon, as if on cue, the friendly black and white Holsteins amble in from the pastures for the second of their daily milkings.

This is the Pennsylvania domain of Jack Strait, his wife Norma, their three sons and the grandchildren. Two of the sons work with their father, tending the fields and the animals. A third son operates a sawmill on the farm. Far and wide, the Straits are idealized as solid farmers, who keep alive a family farming tradition still within easy reach of the big eastern cities.

These are people who give far more than they take, subsidizing society to a large degree with their unending labor. The farm supports three families, produces grains and commercial dairy milk, vegetables and fresh milk that help feed neighboring families, and Christmas trees that sell for a song.

Jack Strait is close to the cows. He knows the personality of each of the animals and he has given most of them names. He forgives their excesses. When a new cow kicked him vigorously and bruised his shoulder badly, he laughed. When he must go out in the cold at 2 a.m. to round up a stray, he laughs.

Strait even can laugh at himself. The biggest laugh is about the table he built for Norma some winters ago. He built it long and wide, just as Norma wanted for holiday gatherings. But he neglected one thing. He made it so long that there was no space for walking around the ends, so he simply cut the table down to size. It seats at least 14 adults and many grandchildren for the traditional family feasts.

The family gives the appearance of regularity, but that is illusory. Their day begins long before dawn and usually does not end until dusk. They are up at all hours, chasing the cows that have broken loose or minding cows that are giving birth. At planting and harvest time, they work deep into the night, lights blazing on the tractors and combines, when other farmers are fast asleep.

This may partly explain Jack Strait's dilemma last year: whether he should take a few days off and go with other family members to a beach in North Carolina. He pondered and pondered, worried out loud, and then finally decided to go on vacation. The family was elated.

The hangup was the cows. Leaving the farm was a decision not to be made lightly. It meant he would voluntarily miss a day of milking for the first time in 40 years. Strait mulled and mulled. He reluctantly turned over the milking to his grown sons and went off to the ocean, where he walked barefoot in the sand for the first time in his life. He talked about it for weeks.

It is not that Strait could not afford to leave the farm. It is that he has no need for the amenities and leisure that other Americans take for granted. His land and his cows are such a part of him that he needs no more, cannot in fact bear for long to be away.

This farmer has good times and bad times, but he does not march in protests, doesn't attempt to influence politicians, never voices the farmer's common complaint about being unappreciated. Jack Strait also needs no sympathy -- he chose this lifestyle, after all -- but watching him occasionally at close quarters, one senses that it is he and farmers like him that Americans ought to be worried about losing.

In dollar terms, one supposes, Strait may make less than a minimum wage but it is enough. The tradeoff is that he and Norma have a freedom that most of us can only dream about. All they ask is that they be left relatively alone and allowed to do the work they are best at.

That's a deal that society really cannot refuse.

Ward Sinclair covers agriculture for The Washington Post.