Since he was old enough to plow behind a mule in the sandy, gun-barrel-grey dirt, Cecil Gaskins has staked his life on three absolutes -- hard work, Jesus and a weed he calls "back-uh."

Holding Gaskins' holy trinity together is a fourth absolute that the farmers here in the nation's richest tobacco land call the "salvation."

It is a farm program invented by the federal government in the 1930s that has turned the tobacco-growing South into a kind of feudal world where the right to grow tobacco is strictly limited and passed from father to son like a sacred birthright.

In this world, the laws of supply and demand are null and void. The government has turned tobacco to gold, according to Robert Traczy, a Deparment of Agriculture economist. "There is absolutely nothing on this earth that can compete with tobacco for money, other than illegal smoking material," he says.

The government's program has preserved the small farms of the tobacco-growing South, holding them in a state of suspended animation -- an anachronism in an American farm system that is otherwise dominated by agribusiness.

"I'm not goin' to tell no story. A 'back-uh' farmer just can't operate and not make money," says Gaskins, who makes $60,000 a year from just 87 acres of tobacco. "If that program is ended, I am ended."

But the tobacco program and the feudal world it upholds are under seige. The federal government's other tobacco program -- the one proclaiming that smoking kills people -- is working, too. Adults in this country last year consumed less tobacco per person than they have since 1898.

No less a figure than Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland, the man revered here as tobacco's protector, says that if he had the power he'd ban smoking in this country. Bergland, a nonsmoker, says his tobacco program often amounts to welfare for farmers who are too poor and unskilled to do anything but raise tobacco.

Even here in the nation's leading tobacco state, trouble is brewing. Young farmers say they are fed up with paying high rents for tobacco leases to their elders, who make a living by doing nothing more than leasing out their government-bestowed right to grow tobacco.

The seige on the tobacco-growing South has forced farmers to deal with two painful ironies. While they are a proud, hard-working society of $600,000 people who believe in individualism and self-reliance, they are addicted -- much like smokers -- to a kind of government assistance. And the farmers, deeply religious for the most part, build their lives and raise their families by producing a product that thousands of health studies indicate causes illness and death.

"These tobacco farmers are caught up in a tragedy," says John M. Pinney, head of the federal Office of Smoking and Health and the Washington official responsible for the federal effort to stop smoking in the U.S. "These farmers are not immoral at all. They are doing something their forebears have done for 250 years. It is a tragedy that they are caught up in one of the great public health problems of our time."

Farmer Cecil Gaskins, however, doesn't see himself as a tragic figure and can afford to laugh at the people who do. Because of the USDA tobacco program, Gaskins is a prosperous man who pays his taxes, tithes to the Ballards Crossroads Independent Missionary Baptist Church and truly believes that by growing tobacco he is doing the Lord's work.

The "Lord's work" here in North Carolina and in the other major tobacco states of Virginia, Kentucky, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida places the federal government in an awkward, difficult-to-explain position. This year the government will spend about $48 million for an anti-smoking effort run by the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and $337 million for Usda's pro-tobacco program.

On its face, the federal ambivalence appears to be a classic example of government bumbling. But even anti-smoking crusaders at HEW agree that the tobacco program actually limits tobacco production in the U.S.

If the tobacco program were abolished, Bergland says there'd be more tobacco on the market and cigarettes would probably be cheaper. The secretary adds that ending the program would leave some 200,000 small tobacco farms with "absolutely no economic alternative" but to go broke.

"It (the program) keeps these families busy in their home towns, and they make a living. These persons are mostly taxpayers. If they were forced to go into the cities how many would be forced to become tax users? I guess, I can't even guess," says Bergland.

The tobacco program began in the mid-1930s, along with other federal programs to help farm prices. Some tobacco farmers then were getting as little as 6 cents a pound for their crop and the South's economy was in danger of collapse. This year, by comparison, tobacco farmers are guaranteed an average price per pound of at least $1.40.

As it now works, the tobacco program strictly limits the acreage and pounds of tobacco that can be grown. Allotments, which determine how much tobacco a farmer can grow, were assigned to tobacco growers when the program began. They were assigned on an historical basis -- if a man had been growing five acres of tobacco for years, he received a five-acre allotment.

A farmer who doesn't have an allotment can't grow tobacco today unless he finds somebody willing to lease him growing rights or else sell him land with an allotment.

Having a tobacco allotment can add about 20 percent to the value of farmland here in North Carolina. Here in Pitt County, where the sandy, flat land is good for little but growing tobacco, a 200-acre farm with a 10-acre tobacco allotment is worth about $50,000 more than a similar-sized farm without an allotment.

"If they take away my allotment, I might have to go to the poorhouse," says Justin Whitehurst, 66, a retired tobacco farmer in Pitt County.

Every three years, tobacco farmers go to the polls to vote in state referendums run by USDA to determine if the allotment program will continue. rThe last time they voted only three out of every 100 farmers voted against the program. In 1939, the one year that farmers in the South opted out the program, tobacco production went way up and prices fell sharply.

When a farmer sells tobacco today, he is guaranteed a fixed support price -- a floor which each year is adjust upward to keep pace with inflation. If a farmer can't sell his tobacco at that price -- or higher -- to private buyers, a USDA-supervised corporation will buy the crop with money loaned from the government.

The system works so well that many farmers here in Pitts County, the premier tobacco-growing county in the nation, claim they've never had a money-losing year -- a claim that shocks farmers who grow crops subject to the free market strictures of supply and demand.

Cecil Gaskins, more prosperous than most tobacco farmers here, earns his $60,000 a year largely off just 87 acres of tobacco. He himself has an allotment of only 9.7 acres, on which he makes an annual profit of about $1,200 an acre. He shares crops and leases the rest of his tobacco land from others who don't farm, making between $500 and $700 an acre profit. On his least profitable land, Gaskins makes about 10 times as much money as he could growing corn, which has an average per-acre profit of about $50.

The remarkable money-making power of tobacco is demonstrated dramatically here in North Carolina, which grows two-thirds of the nation's flue-cured tobacco -- the major ingredient in cigarettes. Just 350,000 acres of tobacco, amounting to half of one percent of the state's farmland, brought farmers $1.2 billion, more than a third of the state's total farm income.

Tobacco built Durham and Winston-Salem, provided most of the money for Duke University and other institutions of higher learning and infuses about $6.6 billion into the state's economy every year. A candidate for governor here has been accused of being unfit to serve the state because 11 years ago he said: "It is time to destroy the myth that tobacco is king . . ."

Ceaseless homage is paid the golden weed here in eastern North Carolina. There are tobacco leaves painted on street signs and tobacco exhibits decorate the local McDonalds. "No Smoking" signs are considered unpatriotic.

The USDA tobacco program that's made the tobacco-growing South prosperous has also proved to be a bargain for the federal government.

As lawmakers from tobacco states are quick to point out, of the $5 billion the government has loaned to buy tobacco since the 1930s, all but $57 million has been paid back with interest. The buyers, such as the government's Flue-Cured Tobacco Cooperative Stabilization Corp. here in eastern North Carolina, purchase the tobacco with government money and store it in warehouses for up to seven years until prices go up. Then they sell it for a profit and pay back the loan.

Losses from the tobacco program amount to just one-tenth of one percent of the $52.5 billion in the government has lost on all price support programs for farm commodities.

Tobacco industry lobbyists, lawmakers from the tobacco-growing regions of the South and USDA officials can hardly suppress their pride in the program.

"This is the least costly, most effective crop support program in the history of our country," boasts Kirt Wayne of Tobacco Associates, a Washington-based firm that represents tobacco growers. Not even anti-smoking zealots dispute Wayne's statement.

Yet, as the nationwide trend toward larger and larger farms has inexorably crept into tobacco country over the last 10 years, the tobacco program has created tension and resentment between yound and old tobacco men.

The source of the bitterness is the government allotment. The USDA-granted license to grow tobacco on a piece of land is seen here as a sacred and lucrative birthright. Retired farmers and their widows least out the allotments earning as much as $1,000 an acre in recent years from people who are paying for the chance to grow the crop.

Justin Whitehurst, who grew tobacco all his life until he retired four years ago, has a 15-acre tobacco allotment. He leases it for about $13,000 a year and can't conceive of any rightful way the government could ever take away the allotment.

"It (his allotment) is something I worked for in younger years. With my allotment and my Social Security I can make a right nice living," said Whitehurst, who lives in Pitt County.

Although, Wayne K. Stokes, 35, a large-scale tobacco farmer in the same county, doesn't begrudge Whitehurst's right to make a living, he argues that no businessman can afford to pay more than 80 percent of his profits to somebody just for the right to grow a crop.

Stokes, who leases all but 45 acres of the 225 acres of tobacco he farms, has invested more than $1 million in modern tobacco growing machinery and curing barns. He says the only way for a farmer to make money nowdays is with a "volume operation." His annuala production costs are nearly $700,000. And while tobacco is a money crop that justified the expenses, Stokes claims nearly all his profits are being drained away by the people who own the allotments and live in town while he works.

"Something's got to change in this program," Stokes says. Agriculture Secretary Bergland agrees there are problems in tobacco.

"The allotment is not a constitutional birthright. I have no interest in supporting a program that simply pumps a windfall account," says Bergland, who adds that USDA planners are studying changes in the program for 1981.

But word of change in the "salvation" program makes most people here in North Carolina angry and defensive. Many are already bewildered by accusations from outside the South that tobacco is an immoral product.

"We don't criticize Midwest farmers who grow grain. We don't criticize Maine farmers for their potatoes. Now why are so many people across these United States criticizin' our tobacco industry? Why do they criticize our livelihood?" aks Sam McLawhorn Jr., 55, a chain-smoker and fourth-generation tobacco farmer who's retired and leases his land.

McLawhorn's daddy, Sam Sr., once advertised cigaretts on the Arthur Godfrey television show ("Chesterfield. It satisfies.") and Sam. Jr., still smokes about three packs of Chesterfields a day. He has a nasty cough. sBut he has an even nastier opinion of federal and state governments for butting into the "private concerns of people who enjoy a good smoke."

"What Mr. Joseph Califano (the former HEW secretary who two years ago proclaimed smoking 'Public Enemy No. 1') did against tobacco will crucify him forevermore in the state of North Carolina," claims McLawhorn.

McLawhorn says that the tobacco-growing South celebrated Califano's firing late last summer like it was the Fourth of July. But another government plague -- federal and state laws limiting smoking in public places -- has not gone away, and McLawhorn says he can't understand what's got into the rest of the country.

"'Cause I like that cigarette I gotta sit in the back seat of that airplane. But you can sit in the front seat and drink all the whiskey you want. If that ain't discrimination, God do have mercy," McLawhorn says.

The seige on tobacco has sent tremors of fear through many tobacco farmers and their worry has filtered upward to lawmakers from the tobacco states and the cigarette industry.

The lawmakers and tobacco industry executives have arched their backs and vow to fight any change in the tobacco program.