Irresistible, the peanut.

Along about sandwich time, when the munchies creep up; maybe halfway through the first cocktail; well into the third inning of a leisurely ballgame, it traps you.

And just as the high-protein peanut beguiles the American palate, to the tune of 1.7 billion pounds last year, so it now has Congress in a bagful of paradoxes and problems.

As the House and Senate Agriculture committees thrash out their versions of the 1981 farm bill, which will help determine the shape and price of our snacks and sandwiches, a mighty struggle has developed over the lowly goober.

Peanut growers, mostly from the Southeast, are ticked off at the Reagan administration, which has rejected their plea for a higher 1981 peanut support price, on the ground that it would be too expensive.

So the arena now is Congress, where three of the key farm-bill figures -- Senate Agriculture Chairman Jesse A. Helms (R-N.C.), House Chairman Kika de la Garza (D-Tex.) and House tobacco-peanut subcommittee chairman Charles Rose (D-N.C.) -- happen to come from major peanut states. c

The peanut fight is one of many in the farm bill; there is one for almost every subsidized commodity. The fights have special sharpness this year. The administration wants to cut the budget; conservatives on the farm committees also want to economize. But at whose expense? That is the question.

The growers this week will urge Rose's House subcommittee, as they earlier urged Helms' committee, to write a bill that will guarantee them higher price supports.

If peanut history repeats itself, such a move inevitably would mean higher prices for consumers. More about that in a moment.

First, a quick primer of the peanut patch:

Of all the commodities covered by federal supports, the peanut may be the most favored. It represents perhaps 1 percent of U.S. farm income, but it has cost taxpayers $1.1 billion in support payments since 1948.

John Doe may be able to build tractors or start a business, but he can't go out and raise peanuts for sale. Strictly controlled acreage allotments are handed down through families -- a system that many, including farmers, consider medieval. The 1981 allotment covers 1.7 million acres.

Producers have an additional protection in that importation of peanuts is virtually banned. Only after prices had skyrocketed and stocks vanished after last year's severe drought did the Carter administration lift the import restriction.

Those are elements in the congressional debate over the 1981 peanut legislation. Candy makers and processors want a cheap, steady supply; farmers want more money; the government wants to keep support costs down.

Meanwhile, farmers in the rich peanut belts of Virginia and North Carolina are organizing to force up 1981 prices by not planting some of their traditional acreages.

Such efforts by growers generally have failed in the past, but this year's campaign underscores the frustration that farmers everywhere feel about farm prices that do not keep up with production costs.

"I've seen what I've worked for during the past 20 years lost in the last three years because of inflation," said Carlton Butler of Carrsville, Va., a leader of the Coalition of Peanut Producers.

"We've gone back so fast it's pathetic . . . If we cannot get a sizable increase in our prices, we are not interested in growing our full allotment. We may recommend a 20 percent cut in planting."

Such a move, coming on the heels of a 1980 crop that was about 40 percent below expectation, could push market prices well above the federal support level of $455 per ton. Growers say they need at least $631 to break even.

Market prices traditionally have closely tracked the federal support price.Knowing that, farmers typically contract sales in advance -- a practice that devastated them last year when the drought forced prices up. Middlemen and processors mostly got the windfall.

Despite the shortage by harvest time, many farmers were stuck with advance contract prices of $455 a ton. Others who did not sign advance agreements go as much as $1,100 a ton and more in some cases.

Butler said Virginia farmers were encouraged by an offer last week from Planters Peanuts, a major purchaser of the choice Virginia-North Carolina cocktail peanut, to buy 1981 nuts at $600 a ton. A Planters spokesman refused to comment on the reported offer.

Those issues aside, Helms and Rose are reported by aides to be sympathetic to pleas for higher federal supports. But there appears to be little inclination on Capitol Hill to revamp a system that has protected relatively few landowners in the six main producing states -- Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, Virginia, Texas and Oklahoma.

Ex-broadcaster Helms rose to fame in North Carolina as "the voice of free enterprise" -- an element that is almost absent from the peanut program that covers 11,000 farms in his state.

"I'm not ready to scrap the program," he said at a hearing this month in response to a Georgia farmer who urged that Congress abolish allotments and suports and let producers fend for themselves.

"The farmers have the best of all worlds out of these farm programs that establish allotments," said a ranking Democratic senator. "We'll all want to take a look at the program, but I don't know who will champion any kind of change on peanuts."

As is common with other complicated legislative issues, consumer voices are scantily heard on peanuts around the Agriculture meeting rooms. There is no Peanut Butter Caucus; no Ballpark Peanut Eaters Association.

The closest thing to that are the peanut butter makers, the confectioners and the nut processors, whose trade associations harshly criticize the federal support programs.

"Very few people realize that there is not freedom in this country to grow peanuts," said James E. Mack, president of the National Confectioners Association -- the candy makers' group.

"Those who obtained allotments originally from the government did not pay anything for them. The government has no legal or moral obligation to continue giving them these allotments," Mack said.

When only certain people are allowed to grow peanuts within specified quantities and imports are prohibited, and these (currently high) prices result, it indeed is a disgrace."

James C. Kalbach, president of the Peanut Butter and Nut Processors Association, is equally critical. "Some of the facts about the program we think are amazing and appalling," he said.

Mack and Kalbach are urging Congress to abandon the acreage allotment and production quota systems, which they say have created a special class of "allotment lords" in the South -- landowners who profit by renting to farmers the peanut-growing allotments they inherited.

Last year, Howard W. Hjort, chief economist in the Carter administration's Department of Agriculture, used different language, but came out at approximately the same place as the processors.

Higher support loan rates, he said, would mean higher domestic prices and lower consumption, while giving farmers more incentive to produce.

Hjort suggested that one result would be that the government would end up with more peanuts acquired through the support loans. Even with tightening of the program in the 1977 farm bill, peanut supporters still cost the government $28 million in fiscal 1980 and $27 million the year before.

And, Hjort added, higher support loan rates would increse the value of each allotment, which would mean higher rents and higher production costs for farmers who lease the properties.

The Agriculture Department estimates that about 70 percent of U.S. peanuts are produced by farmers who do not own the land they are tilling. The allotment holders' rents are believed to average around $200 per acre.

"The elimination of the allotment provision in the law would set into motion a series of adjustments that would mean significant savings for producers who lease land," Hjort said at the time.

Irresistible, the peanut.