Two weeks ago, Thomas Burrel and a handful of other black farmers took over a Farmers Home Administration office in Covington, Tenn., staging a "wait-in" to protest delays in handling of their requests for 1981 planting loans.
Their main complaint of racial discrimination soon vanished when white farmers from Mississippi, Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas showed up to lend support. Telephone calls from other white farmers in Iowa, Texas and Nebraska buoyed the protesters still more.
Everyone, the callers and visitors told Burrell, was having identical problems: processing delays and not enough loan money available at FmHA, a lending agency designed to help farmers who cannot get credit in commercial markets.
Farmer Burrell and his dozen friends in the FmHA office considered the prospect of staying a while longer to dramatize the problem they say small farmers all over the country have with Farmers Home.
Their protest is a visible portion of something bigger: farmer uncertainty over 1981, spurred in part by the economic shock of last year's drought and continuing increases in fuel and supply costs.
Members of Congress and small farmers around the country are expressing concern that the Reagan administration's proposed sharp cuts in FmHA farm-loan money for fiscal 1982 may make things worse.
FmHA, an outgrowth of resettlement and farm security programs of the 1930s, has become a huge institution with 31 different loan and grant schemes for farming, housing, community facilities and business and industrial development -- a sort of onestop rural-assistance center.
The most controversial area, which the Reagan budget deals with by eliminating, is the business and industrial development loan. That program has helped affluent individuals and profitable companies finance controversial projects such as golf courses, resort facilities and shopping centers.
But the administration's proposals would have their most direct effect on farmers by shaking up the operating and ownership loan programs that had their roots in post-Depression efforts to shore up poor and dispossessed farm families.
The program, admittedly a "high-risk" approach, as FmHA officials acknowledge, continues in that vein, as an aid to farmers who cannot borrow money from commercial lenders.
The 1982 Reagan budget would increase operating loans slightly, but would reduce loans for farm purchases and, along the way, by requiring higher interest rates on federal loans, abolish a program set up by Congress to help young people with limited resources buy farms.
Some farmers and legislators contend that the inevitable result of higher interest rates and fewer loans, as President Reagan is proposing, will be a further reduction of small farm operations and expansion expansion by larger, more profitable farmers waiting to gobble up their neighbors.
The House Agriculture Committee voted to restore some of the cuts as it drew up its own budget proposals. But Rep. Ed Jones (D-Tenn.) expressed uneasiness about the direction of administration policy on farm loans, with higher interest and less money available.
"It's Big Business talking when they say everyone ought to stand on their own two feet. This policy is doing the opposite of what governmernt should be doing. We should be making an extra effort to keep people on the farm," said Jones, chairman of the conservation and credit subcommittee.
Reagan's budget would cut the fiscal 1982 fund for farm ownership loans from the current $920 million to $825 million. The Carter administration had proposed $1.5 billion for fiscal 1982. Reagan's operating loan fund would be $1.375 million, well above the current $875 million, but less than Carter's $1.5 billion.
The administration's proposals have jolted leaders of the American Agriculture Movement, whose early enthusiasm for Reagan began waning with continuation of the embargo on grain shipments to the Soviet Union.
"A lot of people think we are overreacting," said AAM national Chairman Marvin Meek, "but if they stick to these budget cuts, we are going to lose from 20 to 30 percent of our producers. On the heels of one of the worst droughts in history, they simply can't cut the operating and ownership loans."
The release in January of the Carter administration's lengthy study of the changing structure of U.S. farming touched on the issue of concentration of land control in fewer hands each year -- a phenonmenon that is drawing increasing attention on Capitol Hill.
"What the adminstration is talking about in the way of budget cuts is pretty frightening," said Jay Sherman of the National Family Farm Coalition.
Sherman noted that the administration's plans to overhaul farm financing programs also will have a sharp impact on a congressionally directed scheme to earmark part of FmHA's money for special low-interest loans to minority and beginning farmers with no other credit available.
By raising interest rates overall, the 5 percent and 7 percent increase "limited resource" loans in this program would be doomed, Sherman said. Jones, whose subcommittee designed the program, agreed.
In fiscal 1980, some 12,000 of the 43,568 operating and ownership loans authorized by FmHA were for young beginners in the limited resource program, with Mississippi, Missouri, Louisiana, North Carolina and Arkansas leading the list.
From his protest point in the FmHA office in west Tennessee, Thomas Burrell put it this way: "We are citizens, we are peaceful and we want to be producers. . . .We are asking a speed-up of the loan process. Plowing has begun and it is critical that farmers get the loan money they need."
"But more than that, we are saying that FmHA policies in general contribute to the problem of the small family farmer. Unless something is done, unless the encouragement is provided, the whole structure of farming will change."