Protesting farmers here grew angrier and more militant yesterday in their bid to win support from Washington officials for higher farm prices and national coverage for their cause, threatening that farmers who ignore their movement might be "shot out of their tractors."
In the third day of their Washington protests, the farmers drove their tractors around in circles, tried unsuccessfully to "elect" a new Secretary of Agriculture and acknowledged for the first time since they arrived that they are not getting the national television attention and support from officials for which they had hoped.
As they paraded west down Constitution Avenue in the freezing rain on tractors and pick-up trucks during yesterday morning's rush hour, several of the tractors broke down or ran out of gas. Meanwhile, commuter traffic along Constitution westbound was diverted to side streets and north-south traffic was reduced to a standstill, causing hour-long waits for some commuters.
A group of about 200 farmers stormed the Department of Agriculture around noon and demanded to see Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland, only to be told - to their surprise - that Bergland already had met with a delegation of farmers at 9 a.m. on Capitol Hill.
A spokesman for the farmers who met with Secretary Bergland said he was unimpressed with Bergland's of-for their products. Several distruntled farmers walked out of a meeting with Rep. Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.), chariman of the House Agriculture Committee, after he said he could not assure them that he would introduce legislation that would guarantee them higher profits.
By the end of the day, some of the farmers were bickering with the police who had spent the morning escorting their parade of as many as 200 tractors and trucks along Constitution and Independence Avenues. A few inflamed protestors resorted to insulting their leaders over the apparent mass confusion.
The main method of communication between the farmers seemed to be the citizen band radios they carried in their tractors.
"No wonder you're confused," Steve McGuire of Blythesville, Ark., said to his buddy who was sitting beside him steering a 30,000-pound, eight-wheeled tractor down Independence Avenue near the Department of Agriculture. "There are 900 folks out there telling each other 900 different things."
Later, farmers clashed with one of their number, Jim Loveless, who become something of a hero earlier after he was arrested in Fairfax County on Wednesday. Police said Loveless rammed his tractor into a police car on Interstate 66.
Yesterday, Loveless's fellow farmers yesterday criticized him when he asked police to contact Secretary Bergland and get him to address farmers at a rally on Capitol Hill. "We need better coordination of what's goin' on around here. If you can't do it, we'll get someone who can," a farmer shouted at Loveless.
Another farmer, in an insulting tone, yelled he could find a "woman" who could lead the tractorcade better than Loveless.
"Let's keep cool, said Loveless.
Then, when the line of tractors and trucks stopped outside the Department of Agriculture, Rodger McAfee, a burly farmer from California who had driven a 42-foot refrigerated trailer truck to Washington for the protest, began shouting to his companions to gather inside the department's lobby "to elect ourselves a Secretary of Agriculture - a farmer . . . Bergland, he's no (expletive) farmer."
Once inside the building, McAfee climbed a top a metal ladder, wearning a plastic construction cap, to address about 200 farmers who had gathered in the lobby or were sitting on the flag-draped bannisters of the lobby balcony. He drew his loudest applause when he criticized the way the press has portrayed the farmers and their protest.
Shortly after McAfee's inflamed speech on the ladder, a calmer farmer climbed up the same ladder and urged farmers not to try to hold spontaneous "election" for a new secretary, but to "do the right thing," by going back to Capitol Hill and talking with legislators. The farmers did.
At the morning meeting with Bergland, the farmers complained to the secretary about the high price of farmland, meat imports from other countries to the U.S., their difficulty in obtaining loans, and their high production costs.
The farmers asked Bergland to support legislation to enable them to sell their products at 100 per cent of parity. That would enable them to sell their commodities at a price that would insure them higher profits and greater buying power, the farmers say. One-hundred per cent of parity would mean that farmers would have the same buying power they did in the period from 1910-1914.
Bergland told farmers, "I'll do anything in my power to help farmers achieve parity of income and parity prices within the authorities I have." But the secretary also said he would not support U.S. legislation to mandate parity prices.
Darral Schroder, a farmer from Colorado who attended the Bergland meeting, which lasted an hour and 10 minutes in the House Agriculture Committee room in the Longworth Building, said Bergland's proclamation of support for parity yesterday was "the same thing he told us in Omaha last month, then a couple of days later he told the complete reverse to the Texas Farm Bureau."
Bergland warned the farmers "don't break the law, don't block highways . . . people are beginning to understand your concerns and anxieties. Don't blow it."