The wheat harvest here is in full swing and the earth looks unusually generous. Green and gold have replaced brown as the dominant threads in the tapestry of the Panhandle, and for the first time in two years, the people of Deaf Smith Country are beginning to smile.
In good times, this hot, dry plateau has, with the help of irrigation and modern farming, provided the people with a comfortable life. Deaf Smith Country regularly leads the state in the production of wheat, ranks in the top 10 in corn and grain sorghum, generates additional income from sugar beets, onions, carrots and potatoes, and fattens more livestock than perhaps anywhere else in the nation.
But in the last two years, most of the farmers here lost huge sums of money. A few went broke. Without a massive infusion of government loans, many more would have.
Rising production costs, especially for energy, and low prices pinched the farmers in this region harder than most and when the American Agriculture Movement's tractorcade wheeled across the 14th Street bridge in Washington D.C. last February 5, six of the tractors and more than 50 of the farmers were from Hereford.
Today most are back here in their fields, and, with good crops and higher prices, they are looking forward to their first profits in two years, which is the reason for all the smiles.
But in a more fundamental way, the lean years are not over, and the farmers know it. Farming here is expensive. The cost squeeze continues. And with it has come an evolution in the life stype of the region. Despite the bright outlook for agriculture this year, a bit of the American dream in Hereford has been snuffed out.
From his perch 10 feet above the High Plains, Gerald McCathern watches intently as his big combine sweeps slowly through the ripened wheat field, devouring the grain in continous mouthfuls and spitting out the inedible stalks in its wake. At the horizon 10 miles away, the ground shimmers under the afternoon sun. It is a perfect day for cutting wheat and McCathern will bounce along late into the Texas night until one of his headlights gives out and he is forced to stop.
Last February, as American Agricultur's national wagonmaster, he led the protesting farmers into Washington. Today that same tractor is being driven by his 14-year-old daughter Kolleen who is helping in the fields for the first time.
McCathern once farmed 2,220 acres here, including rented land. Today he is down to 200 acres. After returning from Washington last spring, he sold off 320 acres. "I sat down with my accountant and we figured we could make more money by drawing interest than by farming," he says.
In 1977, he estimates, he lost $80,000. Last year, he says it was closer to $50,000. To keep going as before, he would have had to get a huge loan from the Small Business Administration or the Farmers Home Administration. The FHA alone has poured almost $50 million into this county in the last two years; the SBA has provided millions more. Many farmers in their forties and fifties have borrowed so much money, they have no equity left." At my age, didn't want to do that," McCathern, 53, says.
He expects to sell his last 200 acres next year. After that he will devote more time to the movement, while keeping his hand in farming by continuing to cut wheat during the harvest time.
In the last two years he and his family have lived off credit and the equity they had built up in the operation. "I dispersed 200 head of cows," he says."I don't have that anymore. I sold off my land."
In other ways too, he has watched his standard of living decline. "I used to trade my combine every four years," he says. "My combine is now 6 years old. When I bought that tractor [the one he rode to Washington] last year, the difference between my old one and the new one was $13,000. But I didn't have the $13,000. I had to get a note for it, and they charge pretty good rates.
"I don't think there's any way city people can fathom what it's like here," he adds. "Just because the like here has been good is no reason we should have to give up our income."
In the last two years, McCathern figures his net worth has dropped $150,000.
The Texas state headquarters of the American Agriculture Movement is an old gas station that sits in the shadow of one of the city's many grain elevators. It is perhaps the one instance in which the farmers here have gotten the better of the energy industry.
The cost of energy is on everyone's mind. Diesel fuel runs 70 cents a gallon compared to 45 cents a year ago. The cost of fertilizers and pesticides -- used freely here -- has risen sharply in the past four years.
But the rising cost of energy is more important to farmers here because it is energy -- natural gas -- that fuels the combustion engines that power the pumps that draw water up 300 feet or more from the Ogallala formation and onto the fields.
It was the abundance of cheap natural gas that made irrigation possible in the 1940's and 50s, that helped turn this once inhospitable land into fertile soil, that made men like McCathern prosperous. And it is the increasing cost of natural gas that now threatens the livelihood of the farmers here and has made them more willing to turn to protest.
"The American Agriculture Movement here has been a pretty good movement," says John Fuston, who runs the local Agriculture Department office. "There are good, progessive farmers involved. One reason is the cost of irrigation."
Deaf Smith County straddles the Ogallala formation. The western half of the county depends on natural rainfall, and is used for "dryland" production of wheat. The eastern half is heavily irrigated and produces wheat, corn, grain sorghum and vegetables.
Irrigated wheat acreage produces about 50 bushels and acre, the dryland about 15 to 20 bushels. The cost of farming the irrigated acreage is about $150 to $170 an acre, while the cost on dryland is about $20. Irrigated wheat needs three to five applications of water. A few years ago, each application required $3 to $5 for fuel. Today that has risen to $20. And this week, the price of natural gas for the pumps will jump 10.6 percent.
As a result, farming patterns have begun to change. Farmers have cut down on the amount of water they use. Corn production, which requires heavy irrigation, has given way to grain sorghum, which requires less. And dryland wheat acreage is increasing. One farmer who decided to buy dryland acreage found the price has risen because others want to do the same thing.
No one is thinking about more irrigation Bob Pope, who runs the Big T Pump Co., says the only drilling he does now is for replacement wells. "We're down 50 percent in the last two years," Pope says. A new well costs about $22,000. "There's no way it would ever pay out for them," Pope adds.
Six years ago, Pope was seven months behind in his drilling.
The pain that the farmers here suffer won't be felt elsewhere in the country. The Agriculture Department says U.S. farmers will produce another bumper crop. Farm prices are rising, and there will be a tendency in Washington to do something to hold them down in the name of protecting the consumer.
The farmers in the Texas Panhandle know it and they resent it. "We're paranoid," says Key Crawford, who went to Washington last winter as McCatherns assistant wagonmaster.
That is why he and the others in the American Agriculture Movement here are continuing their activities. Ultimately they are seeking enough power to set their own prices. They want to become another OPEC oil cartel. Some have even cut back on production rather than incur continuing losses.
'I'll let people starve before I let everything to down the drain just for the sake of farming," says Jerome Friemel, and articulate spokesman for the movement.
But beneath the anger is resignation to the changes coming. "I believe very strongly in a Supreme Being," says Crawford as he heads to Hereford just after sunrise. "But I can also see the theory of evolution. I can see that he's not through here yet." CAPTION: Picture, Gerald McCathern of Hereford, a leader in farmers' protest, expects to sell his last 200 acres next year, By Daniel J. Balz, -- The Washington Post