All of the tractors that were used in the farm protests here this week left Capitol Hill quietly and without incident yesterday, but several thousand farmers vowed to stay for as long as it takes to persuade Congress to guarantee them higher farm prices.
It was the second time the slow-moving tractorcades have demonstrated in Washington since the start of a nationwide farm strike nearly six weeks ago. Across the nation the group, called the American Agriculture Movement, has blocked Christmas mail deliveries in Colorado, halted distribution of an antistrike newspaper in Texas and stopped cattle trucks coming into the country from Canada.
The point, according to the farmers, is that they are going broke and they intend to fight back.
The American Agriculture Movement, barely four months old, still has no officers and no dues, but this week it gained its first heroes. One of them is Alvin Jenkins of Campo, Colo., who stirred the emotions of striking farmers in an impromptu speech Friday before the House Agriculture Committee.
Jenkins brought hundreds of farmers to their feet cheering when he warned that farmers who ignore their call for a strike - defined as a refusal to plant crops - and attempt to capitalize on nonproduction by their neighbors might be "shot out of the cabs of their tractors."
No one is more amazed at such rhetoric than Jenkins himself says he is. But since the American Agriculture Movement was born last Sept. 6 in his Phillips 66 service station, the 43-year-old farmer-gas station owner has observed his own mood change from frustration to desperation.
Jenkins and some Baca County farm neighbors, Derral Schroder and his son Eugene, and Jerry Wright, had just read in the Pueblo (Colo.) Chieftain about the latest farm bill passed by Congress.They felt that no one in Washington had consulted the farmers - which is usual, in their view.
Although farmers pride themselves on their independence, Jenkins said, "we're not stupid," so he and his friends agreed it was time to initiate joint action. They decided to call a town meeting at the First National Bank and Trust Co. in the nearby county seat of Springfield "to see if sure enough any one else agreed with us," Jenkins recalled.
Forty-one farmers showed up for the meeting two nights later, and agreed they would "not buy, not sell and not produce . . . until we can bring our prices up to the economy, or bring the economy down to our price," as Gene Schroder put it.
Since that night Jenkins has visited 43 states, carrying the word about the movement. The Schroders, Wright and Buddy Bitner set out in all directions from Springfield, "like spokes on a wheel," as the elder Schroder described it, meeting with fellow farmers.
"We don't need officers or memberships," Derral Schroder said. "Every place we went, at the end of the meeting, four or five leaders emerged. And when we ask who will participate in the strike, everyone holds up his hand except for the few guys who work for the government."
The strike, which began slowly Dec. 14, was aimed first at putting pressure on Congress to enact a federal law that would make it illegal for farm commodities to be sold at a price lower than 100 per cent of parity.
Parity is to a farmer what the cost-of-living index is to an hourly worker, a guage by which to judge how much money is needed to maintain a constant standard of living.
According to figures complied by the American Agriculture Movement, the composite price of all farm commodities on Dec. 15 was at 64 per cent of parity.
Raising parity to 100 per cent would result in farmers getting half as much for their commodities as they do today. But the movement estimates that the 50 per cent increase in prices to farmers could be accomplished by increasing consumer costs only about 18 per cent, if profits to middlemen were not also increased.
While most senators and representatives who took a stand on the issue last week told farmers they could not support 100 per cent of parity, and Department of Agriculture officials and economists scoff at the possibility of a successful nationwide farmers' strike - pointing to the failure of previous efforts - movement leaders argue that conditions are different this time.
Most importantly, they say, there are fewer farmers, and therefore, fewer people needed to make the strike succeed. And the strongest support for the strike comes from the biggest farmers, who produce the majority of the nation's food.
Ken Palmgren, 36, who farms 860 acres in Goodland, Kan., pointed to a study that showed that although there are 2.8 million farms in America, less than 4 per cent of them - each with annual sales over $100,000 - account for 46.8 per cent of total farm sales.
Marion Kuhlman, who farms 800 acres of wheat, milo and corn, and raises cattle in Sharon Springs, Kan., said the 1.8 million smallest farms, with sales under $20,000, account for only 10.7 per cent of agriculture sales. "We don't need them on our side," Kuhlman said. "We want their support, but we don't need it to be successful."
"The guys who came to Washington are the big, serious, fulltime farmers," added Dave Evert, 25, who farms 3,000 acres in northwest Kansas. "If we plow under our fields, people will know it."
Evert, an agriculture graduate of Kansas State University, said a KSU analysis of the latest government farm program found that if farmers failed to follow Department of Agriculture recommendations, which includes a 20 per cent reduction in planting, "we would lose $19 an acre. If we followed the program, we'd lose $11 an acre. Well, that's not good enough for me," steamed Evert, who said he, his brother and their father lost $18,000 on their farms last year.
The message the visiting farmers hope to get across the consumers is their contention that recent increases in food costs haven't benefited farmers.
Roger Daniels of Oakley, Kan., said a University of Arizona study found that if the price of wheat remained at $2.50 a bushel - fairly high for recent months - the price of bread would go up 8 per cent. "But if we gave our wheat to the miller (instead of selling it at $2.50 a bushel), the price of bread would still go up 4 per cent," Daniels said.
The radicalization of the farmers manifested itself in several directions last week as they sat in motel rooms and talked of "invoking the negative tactics that other minorities have had to resort to," Jenkins said.
After his words before House Agricultural Committee Chairman Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) on Friday, Jenkins was mobbed by admiring farmers as he walked the hallways of Congress.
Men in Stetson hats, cowboy boots and ski jackets bearing emblems that proclaimed "farmers strike" pounded Jenkins' back, pumped his hand and, in the words of one Texan, praised his speech as "the best thing that has been said for the American farmer in this town in years."
Reflecting on his speech over lunch at Mike Palm's Restaurant, Jenkins acknowledged a disillusionment that is foreign to this conservative philosophy.
"I'm tired of being the one to sacrifice so other people can have cheap food," he said. "Year after year, we're being asked to sell our goods at less than the cost of production."
Jenkins said that policy first resulted in his being forced to sacrifice profit on his 320-acre wheat and milo (grain sorghum) farm. "Next," he said, "I 'gave up' my son," who went to college to study engineering because there was no future in farming. "Now this year I've lost my borrowing power" because he was unable to make payments on his bank loan from last year."
"Next I guess I'll be expected to give up my wife, who will have to move to some town where she can get a job.
"When you are pushed to the wall, in desperation you come forward," Jenkins went on. He fears that it is out of that desperation that some farmers might get shot out of their tractors.
"A man who sacrifices everything, who goes along with the strike, and then sees his neighbor planting crops and taking advantage of him. Well, that's how someone could get shot.
"Am I militant? Am I radical? Or is my back against the wall and I'm just coming forward?" Jenkins asked rhetorically.*