It was an unlikely time and place for the launching of a nationwide farm strike - 4 a.m. on a windswept cornfield in a town called the Vineland, just east of here.
But the current farm protest movement itself always seemed implausible.After all, 92 days ago it didn't even exist.
It tapped, however, a wellspring of emotion over helplessness to control economic losses among farmers and the communities who depend on them. This movement never had membership dues or elected officers - it just grew and spread. State offices opened and the "national headquarters" grew from a cramped two-room crop spraying office in the southeastern Colorado community of Springfield to a spacious, if somewhat spare 18-phone storefront operation with fixtures donated by merchants (TV courtesy of M. Ward (SIC), a refrigerator from a local appliance store stocked with pops courtesy of Pop's Beer and Liquor). Any member is a spokesman, and indeed, to an agriculture establishment skeptical of any strike's impact, the American Agriculture Movement is still more a disorganization than an organization.
Yet it called the national media to a 4 a.m. press conference today at the Thomas Produce and Vegetable Store, and the attendance was impressive. And whatever the views of the government and the traditional farm organizations, it was two American Agriculture Farmers interviewed this morning on a network news and talk show.
"I have never seen anything catch on as quickly," said Ron Scharf, a veteran of 10 years of community organizing who is on loan to the strikers here from Catholic Community Services.
"They're fed up, they're tired of being stepped on and being taken for granted," added Andrew Gottschalf, director of rural life for the Catholic Archdiocese of Denver.
So today they began their strike - a promise to quit growing and selling crops and livestock, to quit buying nonessentials, and to disrupt food distribution until they get sufficient prices.
There was not, however, any discernible effect of the widespread yet apparently spotty strike actions. Commodity markets essentially were unchanged in volume and prices. Many rural merchants shut down in sympathy, but there were only scattered successes by farmers' picket lines in halting food delivered.
In the end, the first day of the strike seemed as vague and unknown as the strike movement itself. Nevertheless, it began with bravado and a call to action.
"Let's go," a voice at strike headquarters cried out shortly after 4 o'clock. "Let's hit the road." And westward on U.S. Rte. 50 moved scores of tractors and pick ups, heading for stores, warehouses, rail yards and industries.
Although historically independent, this time they were carrying picket signs and leaflets to be passed out in search of help.
"I've cussed strikers all my life," said one farmer handing out literature to United Steel Workers members arriving at Colorado Fuel and Iron. "I'll never do it again. I thought they were lower class. New look where they are and look at the farmer."
Although the tractors and trucks had turned West, their real target was 2,000 miles to the east.
It is in Washington, the farmers say, that their fate has been sealed in a four-year law setting government price support levels well below what it costs to raise various crops.
The strike activities were not confined to Colorado. In Oklahoma City, police had to clear striking farmers from a stockyard. In Amarillo, Tex., a barricade of tractors essentially closed three food distributors, resulting in shortages of milk delivery to schools: Another distributor agreed to halve all shipments except for some perishable items. Some stockyards were closed in Kentucky. In Plains, Ga., President Carter's hometown, news services reported that almosdt all the businesses were closed. In the whole state of Georgia only three livestock market remained open. [Text Omitted From Source] pact - if there is any - would not be measurable for several weeks.
"We're not in the planting season and things normally slow down at Christmas," said Virginia Agriculture Commissioner Mason Carbaugh. "It'll be hard to assess until after the holidays."
"Personally, I don't see any impact around here," said Maryland Agriculture Department spokesman Tonny Evans. "It'll take two weeks to tell any effect. Most of the people participating are grain producers and there isn't much grain this time of year."
Organizers of the American Agricultural Movement's strike for higher prices spoke confidently of their strength and chance of success. C.L. Ritchie, a Fauquier County, Va. farmer active in the protest, said, "We claim 1 million supporters and I have faith that we will stick together."
One of the strike group's actions was having some effect yesterday. Supporters were being asked to quit the state and county units of the American Farm Bureau, and at least three did so in Fauquier County. There were no state or national statistics available and the Farm Bureau was attempting to keep a low profile in a battle it feels could endanger its tax-exempt status.
Officials at the Southern States Cooperative, a major farmer co-op active in Virginia, Maryland, Delaware, West Virginia and Kentucky, said it would continue to operate and said they doubted the strike would bother them. Strikers picketed yesterday at a Southern States grain facility in Richmond.
At the Fauquier Livestock Exchagne in Marshall, Va., manager John Heyl said, "As much as farmers need hlep, we are not going to change our operation. God knows, the farmer needs some assistance but I doubt that the mechanics of a strike can work."
Samuel Butler, a Bealeton dairy farmer active in the protest, said, "I was down there in Washington all night. I had three tractors down there (for the midnight tractor caravan that circled the Capitol and White House).
"I'm in this thing for a good cause," he added. "The farmer needs to wake the country up. I intend to cancel my farm bureau membership. But we don't plan to hold any milk off. My milk has to go every day. You'd have to get 90 per cent of the dairies to participate to make it effective."