WE HAVE MET and talked with many gracious farm families in town last week -- people who have been peacefully delivering their messages to the federal government and the media. But we have also toured the Mall, where the farmers' protest has inflicted more damage than any group in recent memory -- and where the estimated cost to the taxpayer of all this desecration may hit $2 million. In their attempt to win friends and influence people, the farmers so far have:

Stripped slats off of park benches to use for firewood;

Damaged an undergound sprinkler system used for watering the grass;

Broken an $8,500 kiosk at the Smithsonian Metrostation;

Cut down and burned 25 young elms, damaged curbs, signs, paths and possibly the bottom of the reflecting pool -- which wasn't built to accommodate tractor joy-rides.

Lord knows how much it will cost to resod the Mall -- the estimate at this point is $500,000. There are also the costs of containing the farmers' tractors by encircling them with Metro buses; there are 34 of these buses that have been rented for more than $19,000 a day and 71 other older buses at a flat cost of $50 to $100 apiece for the duration. There's also police overtime to be paid. To this must be added whatever else it will take eventually to clear all the farm machinery out of the area.

Some of the farmers argue that this mess wouldn't have happened had the police not created a "Tractor-town" by penning in the farm equipment all along the Mall from below the Capitol to 14th Street. That is not only an unacceptable excuse for trashing the nation's capital, but it also overlooks the very reason the demonstration was contained in the first place -- namely, the traffic jams and violence that took place last Monday.

The people of the District of Columbia, and their police officers, certainly respect the rights of Americans to demonstrate here and in fact have earned a reputation for sensitive hospitality. And with their local income taxes, they have had to pay many of the costs of demonstrations. Similarly, taxpayers throughout the country have been billed for the federal government's costs. As we have said before, by this kind of trashing a minority of farmers is wearing out the welcome of the whole movement.