At the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sugar has become a sour symbol of bureaucratic disarray.

Consider these items of recent note:

The State Department - a foreign affairs agency - drafted a proposed version of a domestic sugar price support bill before the USDA did.

A sugar industry lobbyist obtained a copy of the USDA's proposed sugar measure before key members of Congress did. This fact emerged at a public House hearing when the lobbyist helpfully offered to make his copy available to the members of Congress.

The USDA's chief sugar expert disagrees with the administration's sugar policy, says so publicly and has provided technical assistance to a group of senators drafting an opposing bill.

"Sugar has been the tarbaby for us," said a chagrined USDA official. "Every time we take a swing at it we get stuck worse."

To some inside the government, as well as outside of it, the USDA's sugar difficulties are indications of a department that is getting lost in the thicket of Washington politics.

This view is expressed by a former high official of the department who describes Secretary Bob Bergland as "a farmer who is basically over his head." Bergland will survive, he adds, "only if it is quiet in the next six months and there are no further disasters."

This is not, however, a unanimous verdict.

Bergland's allies - including loyal subordinates at USDA, Vice President Mondale and former congressional associates, such as House Agriculture Committee Chairman Thomas S. Foley (D-Wash.) - say things are not that bad over on Independence Avenue.

Bergland's former deputy secretary and now Democratic National Committee Chairman John C. White ranks Bergland as one of the three most effective Cabinet members, along with Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams and Secretary of the Interior Cecil D. Andrus.

"I'm in love with Bob Bergland," White says. "He's the neatest guy I ever ran into."

Bergland's supporters say that the politician hasn't been born who can manage the USDA. They add that his predecessor, Earl L. Butz, never really tried. Butz was content to operate as a one-man Department of Agriculture who ignored the USDA's bureaucracy and felt that the less the agency did the better.

The USDA has been described as the last unexplored territory in America" - a department that is really not a department at all but a collection of agencies with semi-sovereign powers: the Forest Service, the Foreign Agricultural Service, the Agricultural Research Service, the Soil Conservation Service and so on. The USDA runs one of the federal government's largest police forces - the nearly 8,000 meat, poultry, vegetable, plant and grain inspectors.

For years, the 20,000-member Forest Service has had the same kind of autonomy as the FBI has had in the Justice Department. And its director, John J. McGuire, is respectfully referred to as "Chief McGuire," even by political appointees who technically are his superiors.

These bureaucratic subdivisions all have their own commercial constituencies and direct links to key members of Congress. Hugh timber companies, which bid for contracts to cut trees in national forest, turn to the Forest Service, and grain companies communicate with the grain division of the Foreign Agricultural Service.

The recent independence exhibited by Robert R. Stansberry Jr. of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation service is cited by USDA officials as an example of the power of the sub-bureaucracy.

Sugar expert Stansberry has made no secret of the fact that he disagrees with the White House's tough stand against raising sugar price supports above 14.65 cents a pound for the 1978 crop. Stansberry provided technical help earlier this year to a Senate group headed by Sen. Richard Stone (D-Fla.) which came up with a bill with a support price of 17 cents. Stansberry said he made it plain that "I was not up there on the Hill for the administration," and adds that he hopes for a "compromise."

Stansberry hastens to add that he "hasn't been ostracized" at USDA, even though many officials in the top echelons of the department say they are angry at him. Stansberry is a longtime friend of Bergland from the days in the 1960s when Bergland was an official of the USDA.

Many of the subdivisions of the department maintain direct links to Rep. Jamie L. Whitten (D-Miss.), chairman of the House agricultural appropriations subcommittee. Whitten has been called the "permanent secretary of agriculture."

This year, Whitten performed such a brutal rewrite of Bergland's proposed budget that Bergland said it would "seriously impair my ability and the president's to manage the Department of Agriculture."

Whitten slashed Bergland's personal office account, and appropriated $15.9 million more than Bergland sought for research and soil-conservation projects in various congressional districts. Whitten's subcommittee also did away with competitive bidding for federal research grants.The House bill swept through on a vote of 326 to 59 on June 22.

The independence of the secretary also has been eroded by sweeping changes in agriculture's position in the U.S. economy and in the structure of the food industry.

Now that agriculture has become a driving motor of the U.S. economy, with a profound impact on the trade balance, the health of the dollar and foreign policy, many people want more of a say in agricultural policymaking.

Under Bergland, this problem has been exacerbated by managerial and administrative difficulties.

As of June 27, Bergland had been out of Washington for 145 days of the 523 days he had been in office. He was absent for 107 weekdays.

The job of deputy secretary has been vacant since the end of January. This has contributed to administrative problems and declining morale at the USDA - a situation that has frequently been brought to attention of President Carter. "We get the president to fill that post, but nothing happens," lamented one USDA aide.

At least half a dozen candidates have been considered and have either been passed over or have declined to serve. The current leading candidate is Gene A. Triggs, assistant to the president of the Mississippi Chemical Corp. The retired board chairman of the company is Owen Cooper, a longtime friend and supporter of Carter.

In Bergland's absence the department is run mainly by his executive assistant, Lee Corcoran, and by Howard W. Hjort, the director of economics, policy analysis and budget. According to USDA insiders, these two men respect each other and work well together, but the absence of a strong administrative hand at the top has enabled intrigue and rivalries to flourish and mistakes to occur lower down.

Corcoran, a lawyer who graduated from the University of Minnesota in the same clause as Vice President Mondale, is said by several sources to be the smartest and toughest of the old Minnesota associates on Bergland's payroll.

Corcoran describes himself as "a kind of a hustler" and "a little bit of a bastard," who concentrates on personnel matters and advises Bergland on the political impact of his decisions. But Corcoran also runs a policy review board.

Hjort, 46, a painstakingly thorough economist who has had experience as a USDA analyst and as a private consultant, has accummulated sweeping authority over almost all the agency's programs.

The criticism most often heard of Hjort is that he is overly conscienctious in researching issues - a trait that sometimes has caused delays and slowdowns in the drafting of policy. "Howard is one of the finest economists in government," said a former official. "But he would be overworked if he had just two pieces of paper on his desk - that's how exhaustively he goes into things."

Hjort drafts farm programs and testifies about them before Congress, chairs an interagency working group on food and agriculture through which pass virtually all matters touching on USDA interests, chairs a working group that is drafting recommendations for future tree-cutting in a national forest, is the USDA's "anti-inflation czar" and runs a world food board that puts together global estimates of supply and demand that are crucial to government policymakers.

Bergland descibes Hjort as "a very good technician," but some insiders feel Hjort's role is bigger than that and the Montanan concedes that he has "a lot of responsibility."

There have been frictions between Hjort and another economist, Dale E. Hathaway, assistant secretary for international affairs and commodity programs. At one point Hathaway's Foreign Agricultural Service resisted providing data to Hjort's World Food Board.

"You could say that FAS at that time was less than fully cooperative," Hjort recalls. The bureaucratic impasse had been resolved.

Hathaway has been out of the country much of the time attending international talks on trade liberalization and wheat and has surrendered much of his authority over domestic commodity programs to Hjort.

This has added to frictions, but insiders say personality differences may be the main problem. Hjort operates informally, while Hathaway has a reputation in the agency and in the commodity trade as being stiff and aloof.

"Hathaway receives calls from 4 to 4:30 - as if he were the pope," said a Washington businessman involved in agriculture.

According to his friends, Bergland shows tension by rubbing his stomach. "When Howard and Dale are in a room together Bob will often be rubbing his stomach," said a former USDA official.

Bergland is the man who has ultimate responsibility for the successes and failures at USDA.

He came to office at a difficult time. Farm prices were falling rapidly, through no fault of the new Carter administration, and a comprehensive new farm bill was due, requiring decisions on price supports, loans to farmers and acreage targets for wheat, corn and cotton.

Bergland was forced to be the administration apologist in Congress for a farm price-support package he felt gave farmers too little. Congress forced through higher support levels.

Bergland maintains that the record of accomplishment since then has been creditable. USDA has promulgated new regulations to improve the safety, nutritional value and labeling of food. And it has issued policy proposals on trade, international wheat reserves, research and eligibility of farms of more than 160 acres for cheap irrigation water from federal dam projects.

But Bergland and his department still lack a strong profile. The sugar debacle was caused in part because the USDA was so slow drafting its own proposal that Stone and Sen. Frank Church (D-Idaho) drafted their own version. Some White House aides say this would not have happened if Bergland had taken a more aggressive role.

Bergland has emerged as a far more contradictory and controversial figure than the "nice guy" that he was seen to be when he took over.

Friends and critics say Bergland lacks "presence" and "swagger." Foley says he is a "quiet kind of hard worker."

Heads do not turn when Bergland enters a room.

"I've been sitting at a hearing wondering to myself where the devil the secretary of agriculture was when I suddenly realize he's the man with the shirt sleeves rolled up two seats away," said a congressman.

Former secretary Butz has been circulating a cutting joke about Bergland's low profile. It is about a U.S.D.A. secretary who returns from a lunch break to find a message telling her to call her boss. "Did he leave his name?" she asks a cowoker.

His image has not been helped by his tendency to get his facts wrong in public some of the time.

Soon after his return to Washington from a trip to the Soviet Union and Western Europe, Bergland made three misstatements during a one-hour briefing for reporters.

He said the Soviet Union was not a signer of the current international wheat agreement (it was); indicated that the administration would urge a sharp increase in the rate of tree-cutting in national forest (the review was still under way), and suggested that the administration might compromise on the level of sugar price supports (the White House denied this). Some said later that Bergland was suffering from jet lag.

However, Bergland's supporters say neither the USDA's record nor Bergland's performance in office justifies the snide criticisms.

They depict Bergland as a man of courage, integrity, political skill and (by Washington standards) unique lack of ego. "He is the least paranoid man in Washington," said an admirer, who added that Bergland is not defensive about mistakes.

Foley says Bergland is "the one guy I'd pick to go to the well with."

"He isn't a streetfighter," says an aide. "He's no Califano [Joseph A. Califano Jr., secretary of Health, Education and Welfare.] But he's stunned us all. When the pressure becomes intense and we are all looking for compromises, Bergland is the last one to back down."

While previous secretaries have tried to flatter and cajole the powerful Jamie Whitten, Bergland has attacked him publicly, accusing him of "interfering where it's none of his business," and making a veiled threat: "I have a way of dealing with him." Bergland explained that committee chairmen are now elected. (Whitten aspires to be chairman of the full House Appropriations Committee.)

Last Spring Bergland talked tough to the militant American Agricultural Movement, which disrupted Congress by loosing goats in the corridors and demanding higher price supports. Today, Bergland speaks with disgust of senators who rushed through a bill to please the AAM. "The Senate was put to full flight," he says.

"Bob Bergland is not one of those guys who feels his manhood is attacked when his policies are attacked," says Carol T. Foreman, assistant secretary of agriculture for food and consumer affairs. "The Washington elite is uncomfortable with this administration because the decision-making process is different. Washington likes the kind of macho politician who signs off on everything."

Some of the seeming disarray in the USDA bureaucracy is attributable to the different style of the Carter administration, according to White. "We might look good," he said, "if we went back to the old system when everybody had to line up and salute, and you disagreed at the peril of your job."

That is not going to happen, he said.