The farmers from Kansas keep coming to Washington and going home on a flight they have dubbed, without much affection, the "farmer's special."
From Kansas towns like Weskan and Goodland, wheat and corn farmers drive at night about 190 miles to the Denver airport. They board TWA Flight 252 and take off at 1:45 a.m. They arrive at Dulles airport at 6:55 a.m. "You get a hangover on that flight," says Kenneth Palmgren, a farmer from Goodland, "whether you drink or not."
The farmers who came by the thousands to Washington in mid-January to protest low farm prices have not all given up and gone home. According to the leaders of the American Agriculture Movement, there have been between 500 and 700 farmers from across the country in Washington since the tractorcades and mass rallies ended Jan. 21.
By car, bus, train and flights like the "farmer's special," the farmers are recycling themselves to maintain a presence in Washington. Leonard Cox, who farms 640 acres of irrigated land in Weskan, flew home Friday night, having completed his third week-long tour of Washington. He plans to fly back next week. Each round-trip costs Cox $228, but he says farmers back home are helping him with his expenses.
A desk clerk at the Skyline Inn on Capitol Hill where farmers have been staying said about 50 farmers check in on Sunday nights, they check out on Friday and a new group of 50 or so checks in again Sunday. Other motels in the Capitol Hill area report much the same thing.
In Washington, this past week scores of farmers, have testified before the Senate Agriculture Committee, saying they are going broke and asking for a farm bill that will give 100 percent parity on their farm prices. Parity is a measure of farmer's purchasing power, with 100 percent parity meaning that farm prices would be high enough to give farmers the same purcahsing power they had in the 1910-14 base period used for measurement.
The farmers, according to movement spokesman Greg Suhler, a wheat farmer from Springfield, Colo., "have knocked on just about every door in town" over the past six weeks. They have set up interviews with their congressmen, questioned bureaucrats at the Agriculture Department and met together four nights a week since mid-January to discuss their progress.
"Once our numbers get diluted down to 500 or so, you can lose the farmers pretty quick in this city," Suhler said, "but we are here, we are no flash in the pan."
Farmers on their second and third tours of Washington are learning, Suhler said, "how things work here in Washington." They know whom to call to reserve time for testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee and they are meeting sympathetic Washingtonians who help them cut the high cost of maintaining a presence in the city.
One night last week, for example, 10 Kansas farmers put up $31 for hamburger, sauce and buns and had a feed on "sloppy joes" in the Capitol Hill home of Herb Hunter, a Washington pharmacist.
Hunter and several of his friends are boarding farmers in their homes and have invited people from the neighborhood to listen to the farmers' problems.
Farmers this week in Hunter's house said they thought they were helping their cause by forcing their congressional delegations to pay attention to their problems. But they said they're growing increasingly bitter because they no longer get any attention from the news media.
Kenneth McDaniels, who says he lost $32,000 last year farming 1,280 acres in Edson, Kan., said the farmers in Washington desperately need television coverage so farmers back home, some of whom are footing the bill for their friends in Washington, don't get discouraged.
The farmers in Hunter's house mentioned news coverage of last Wednesday's violent confrontation in Hidalgo, Tex., where police stopped 200 farmers from blocking truckloads of Mexican watermelons entering the United States. The farmers say they were protesting importation of farm products grown with the aid of pesticides, like DDT, that are banned in the U.S.
"We never get any attention in the media unless it is connected to violence," McDaniels said.
"Let me ask this," Cox said to the farmers and neighborhood people in Hunter's house this week, "if you have three-quarters of your people out in my area going broke, don't you think there'll be some sort of action?"
Lynwood Chatman, a Washington cabinet maker who listened to the farmers' problems this week, told them they have to keep on fighting "just like the Vietnamese did. From what you tell me, I can see you can't go back home."