Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland was evacuated "for his own safety" yesterday morning from his office in the Agriculture Administration Building when about 50 farmers broke through a glass door in the building, threw some punches at security offices and demanded to see Bergland.
Bergland was whisked out of the building at about 10:30 a.m. for safety reasons to avoid a possible confrontation with the farmers, according to Robert Smith, chief of security for the building.
The 50 or so farmers who pushed their way into the building were at the head of about 1,100 farmers who marched yesterday morning from the White House to the Capitol to the Department of Argriculture buildings.
Most of the farmers wore the red and blue hats of the American Agriculture Movement, which have become a common sight in Washington since mid-January when several thousand farmers marched and paraded their tractors through city streets demanding higher prices for their products.
Smith, who met the farmers at the front door of the building and was punched above his left eye, said the farmers "marched down the street (Independence Avenue) very orderly, but by the time they got here they had themselves all worked up."
Deput Chief Walter M. Evanoff of the Federal Protective Service said the first rush of farmers into the building resulted in two arrests for assault. But he said the two farmers were released to the crowd in return for a promise that the farmers would leave the building.
Evanoff said the farmers then made a second rush into the building, this time shattering a glass door. Evanoff, who was waiting with a large security contingent in the building's lobby, said he told the farmers that some of them could see an official from the Department of Agriculture if most of them would leave the building.
Wayne Peterson, a rancher from Holabird, S.D., and a spokesman for the farmers, said he understood that Evanoff promised the farmers they would be able to see the man "of our choice."
As most of the farmers dispersed about 11:30 a.m., Peterson and a delegation of about 30 farmers from across the country were led to a fifth floor conference room where yesterday afternoon they claimed they had not been permitted to see the man of their choice, Bergland.
The farmers in the room played a tape recording of Evanoff saying, "I'll give you the meeting that you desire. Karen Voight (a USDA public affairs official who dealt with the farmers yesterday) will hand-carry you to whatever man that you want to see."
Karen Voight told the farmers in the conference room later that she "made a mistake" when she told them they could meet Bergland yesterday.
Members of the delegation said yesterday afternoon they took Evanoff's words as a promise they would be able to meet Bergland, and they vowed they would not leave the conference room "until we meet with Mr. Bergland or we are arrested."
Bergland, according to Evanoff, has agreed to two meetings with the farmers today. The farmers were told the secretary could not meet them yesterday because of his busy schedule.
The 33 farmers in the conference room voted at 7 p.m. to spend the night in the Agriculture building. Leonard Cox, a wheat farmer from Weskan, Dan., said the farmers plan to spend the night in the building to "prove that this is our building." Evanoff told the men they could spend the night if they did not destroy property.
Farmers in the conference room said they were willing to go to jail to bring attention to the low prices, which they said are causing them to lose money. "We made the newspapers when the goats got loose," said Alabama farmer Albert Childress, referring to Wednesday's release near the Capitol of 73 goats. "And we'll make the news again if we are arrested."
Farmers interviewed yesterday said the violence in the agriculture building was "spontaneous." But several said they are tired of not getting media coverage from their peaceful demonstrations.
"We can parade here for days at a time and wear out our shoes," said Jerry (Smokey) Wilson, a Campbell, Mo., corn farmer. "But when we start to fight we get some attention."
Farmers in Washington, some of whom get financial support from farmers back home, say they need network television coverage to convince the people back home they are doing something and making an impact.
Tom Sands, an assistant to Bergland, said yesterday the Agriculture Departments does not feel the protesting farmers represent a large group of farmers in the nation's heartland.
Sands said the department is providing loans to two major groups of farmers, those hit last year by drought and young farmers who are over-invested in expensive farm land. "We know which ones are hurting," Sands said, "but we just don't know about the people who are here."