Lord knows the blizzard that came roaring down through Knox County last week was a thriller, with its 53-degree-below zero wind chill, but that wasn't the most interesting wind blowing here.
The more interesting wind was carrying the voices of farmers like Walter Medley, Mike Hennenfent, Maurice DeSutter, Dick Holmes and Rollie Moore, with a message for President Reagan and his budget-cutters:
Cut that budget, boys, and cut it sharp. Cut that sucker deep and cut it fair and sqaure across the board.
In truth, one might have expected such, for nobody pretends that the prosperous farm country around here is America in microscosm.
Knox County went strongly for Reagan in November. His agriculture secretary, John Block, farms 3,000 acres here and may be the most popular Knox Countian since poet-historian Carl Sandburg. House Republican leader Bob Michel, always popular, won more than 60 percent of the vote here.
But like every other rural county in America, the economics and welfare of Knox County are woven into the budget on which Reagan has invoked a plague. Sharp cuts, inevitably, mean sharp pain for farmers as well as city folk.
A reading of the wind here, however, produces another view. Even among farmers who benefit directly from some of the federal largess, the talk is that enough is enough and it's time for the country to get serious about reducing federal spending.
Walter Medley of Wataga, for example, couldn't make it without low-interest federal farm operating loans, but he thinks the Farmers Home Administration ought to be a prime target for cutbacks. "FmHA is a savior for many people, but we hear about their financing of resorts and things of that nature and that should be eliminated."
Mike Hennenfent, just named one of the country's four outstanding young farmers, lives so marginally that he could qualify for food stamps if he wanted them. He doesn't, and he thinks that program ought to be cut down.
"I want to see all programs retained, but I want to see them whittled down," he said. "It is an asset to American agriculture to have the food stamp program -- it provides markets for us. The really needy deserve help, but we're subsidizing the upper group of the low-income people who may not need it."
Dick Holmes feels the same way. Farmers Home got him started, but he'd like to see it cut. Federal child nutrition programs prop up the local school board on which he sits, but he thinks the feeding assistance is excessive.
And so the wind blows here in Knox County, as in most of the other rural counties of this hugely productive and rich agricultural state, with one farmers after another claiming to be four-square behind the sort of austerity Reagan is talking.
After budget-cutting, the main talk of Knox County is about the administration's handling of the partial embargo on grain exports to the Soviet Union. Every whisper, sneeze and speculative cough out of Washington is reported in great detail on area radio stations each day.
While farmers here are supportive -- for the time being, anyway -- of Reagan's efforts to cut the federal budget, it seems clear their enthusiasm is linked to the hope that Reagan will keep his campaign promise and end the embargo, which they continue to see as an unfair burden dumped on farmers by the Carter administration.
George Inness, one of the county's largest grain producers, said, "The embargo has had a devastating effect on us. I think President Reagan and Jack Block will make an effort to stand by their promise. Block talks about more export trade, but it is hard to do business with people if you don't keep a constant supply before them. We should treat our potential customers as well as we can, because we are not the sole suppliers of the world's foods."
Once past the embargo issue, Inness also sounds like other Knox County farmers on budget matters. "We're pretty well adjusted to the fact that the budget cuts will affect all of us. . . . People around here feel that if federal programs can be trimmed with no immediate danger to the neediest recipients, then it should be done," he said.
The problem, of course, is that one man's idea of excess is another man's idea of necessity, a point made by Bill Carls of Edinburg, who is a national delegate of the American Agriculture Movement.
"We are all very supportive of the Reagan administration," Carls said, "but the difficulty is determining who is needy. I just talked to a farmer who has 1,200 to 1,400 acres and he qualifies for food stamps. I know that Dave Stockman [Reagan's budget director] is going to have to be very discretionary. It's a heckuva judgment for him to have to make."
The popular conception is that every farmer is on a first-name basis with the multitude of federal farm and nutrition programs, and that every one of them relies on the subsidized prop.
Not so, in the eyes of Victor Rhea, Knox County supervisor for the Department of Agriculture's Farmers Home Administration, a principal provider of low-interest operating and farm purchase money for farmers who can't get credit through commercial channels.
In Knox, that means that roughly 15 percent of the county's 2,600 farmers get involved in FmHA programs. "Some farmers around here have never even heard of FmHA. They haven't needed the services and some don't care about it," Rhea said.
Rollie Moore, 32, is typical of the new breed of college-trained farmers who, in increasing numbers, operate the great corn, soybean, wheat, hog and cattle farms of the Midwest. He knows economics, he knows markets and he is politically sophisticated.
"We farmers cannot be selfish and I think we understand that," Moore said. "We can't say, 'Trim everyone's favorite program but our own.' I feel the administration should leave in place what is absolutely needed and be as stingy as it can be with the rest. A balanced budget will help, but we are also going to have to reduce the federal deficit to achieve longer range change."
Dick Holmes, also a college graduate, put it another way. "I just hope Reagan is strong enough. All these programs need to be scrutinized. Look at those interest-free loans we can get on our grain reserve. That is free money and as nice as it is, it has to come to a stop."
"I hope to heck Ronald Reagan hangs on and makes this all work," said Maurice DeSutter, 46, who farms 1,500 acres and claims never to have used any federal farm assistance programs. "Inflation and high-interest rates are our biggest enemies."
"If I told you my debt, you'd go home," he added. "But I have never had any government help. Never went after any of the loan programs because I felt I was just as well off without it. . . . A lot of this federal spending is not needed and it just worries me to death what might happen to the nation in 20 years if we continue to depend on government. We have got to be careful and I'm willing to give up something to keep what we have."
The voices in the wind are getting interesting.