In a lawsuit that challenges an entire system of publicly sponsored agricultural research, a group of California attorneys today sued the University of California for spending millions of dollars to develop what the attorneys called "welfare machines" -- the mechanized farm tools that are reshaping American agribusiness.

"We believe it is a travesty for the government to use tax monies to force people out of work and drive small family farmers off the land," declared Albert H. Meyerhoff, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance, the state and federally financed legal aid group that filed the suit on behalf of 19 farm workers -- some currently unemployed -- who say their livelihood is being threatened by the sophisticated harvesting machines developed by the university.

The suit contends that harvest machines in the California tomato industry alone have displaced 32,000 workers, and that many thousands more workers have been replaced by university-developed machines in vegetable fields and truit orchards.

The mechanical harvesters have also forced small farmers out of business, the suit contends, because the machines are so expensive and so well-suited to large acreage that only owners of bigger farms can afford them. And the harvesters, harsher and less discriminating than human field workers, have required the development of vegetables the quality of which is perhaps best exemplified by the new thick-skinned tomato, the suit charges.

The lawsuit, which was filed in Alameda Superior Court and announced in simultaneous news conferences in Sacramento and Los Angeles, contends that the university's massive financing of the research that produced these machines (the combined budget of the university's two principal agricultural research facilities totals about $72 million annually) constitutes an illegal use of public money.

Many members of the Board of Regents have direct financial ties to the agricultural corporations that benefit from the research, the suit charges.

And because the University of California is one of over 70 colleges and universities under the federal land grant system, which makes public land available to colleges for agricultural and mechanical research, the suit says the university is required by law to "promote the maintenance of maximum employment and the improvement of the rural home and rural life."

These farm machines, the attorneys said, are having precisely the opposite effect.

"Almost every state in the country has a land grant institution," said Meyerhoff. "There is similar research going on throughout the country -- in Michigan, in Texas in New York at Cornell University." And in those universities, Meyerhoff said, vast amounts of research money are being channeled into projects that benefit private corporations, sometimes at the expense of society at large.

The lawsuit asks that the university be enjoined from further mechanization research "conveying a special economic benefit to narrow private agribusiness interests," that the university regents be prohibited from participating in any decisions concerning agricultural research that might benefit them financially; and that anyone who has "knowingly provided a gift of public funds to a private interest or entered into contracts in which they were financially interested" be forced to repay that money to the state of California.

Attorneys for the farm workers could not specify how much money might be repaid altogether, but Meyerhoff said the figure would be in the "hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars."

At the University of California's Davis campus, where a great portion of the controversial research is now conducted, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Dean Charles E. Hess said he believed the development of harvesting machines was a trade off -- a decline in field jobs in exchange for improved efficiency -- that ultimately benefited the consumer.

"What has to be looked at is the overall impact on the economy," said Hess, who had not yet seen a copy of the lawsuit and could not reply to its specific charges. "The number of acres [of tomatoes] being grown has increased dramatically."

He said displaced workers were frequently hired in canneries or in other nonfield agricultural work, although the university is not actively retraining them.

And the mechanical harvesters, said Hess, echoing the sentiments aired many times by agribusiness representatives were inevitable following farm-worker unionizing and the end of the Bracero program, which allowed the temporary importation of cheap Mexican field labor.

"If the harvester had not been introduced, the industry in California was prepared -- in fact, had already started -- to move to Mexico," he said.