Somewhere out there on the high seas, coming to the United States from faraway places with strange sounding names, are peanuts -- many, many pounds of peanuts -- but they're not going to let them ashore.
That's not all. On the docks at Norfolk, San Francisco and other ports are at least 60 million more pounds of peanuts, purchased by American processors, but banned from use on the U.S. market.
You remember the Peanut Crunch of 1980 -- the serious peanut shortage caused by the drought and heat last summer, the disappearance of peanut butter from store shelves, the high prices for the peanut products that were available.
Well, what we have today is Son of Peanut Crunch.
The processors got the government to approve more imports, then bought more foreign peanuts than the quota allowed and now find themselves with about $80 million worth of goobers they can't get into the country.
"It's an unbelievable situation," said James Mack, Washington agent for the country's major peanut butter and candy makers. "The whole thing is ludicrous. Here we have a shortage and these people who bought peanuts in good faith now find they can't get them into the country."
Before you shed a tear for the peanut folks, understand something: this is part of a full-scale war that processors are fighting with peanut growers. The processors want prices low, the growers want them high; it is that simple. Before too long, the whole thing is going to engulf Congress, where debate is about to begin on peanuts and kindred matters in the 1981 farm bill.
Back to Son of Peanut Crunch.
After last year's nut shortage, the Reagan administration responded to the processors' appeals and increased the import quotas that are designed to protect American growers from foreign competition. The regular quota is 1.7 million pounds; the administration allowed in 300 million additional pounds this year.
By mid-June, the quota had been met. But importers had many extra peanuts in the pipeline, including millions of pounds heading here in a leisurely way from the People's Republic of China. When the quota was met, Agriculture Secretary John R. Block shut the door. No more can come in, he said.
Last week, the Peanut Butter and Nut Processors Association, in the form of James E. Mack, telegraphed President Reagan, asking for "immediate action" to increase the quota and permit the additional, already purchased 80 million pounds of foreign peanuts into the country.
But a White House official said yesterday that the administration does not intend to bend. The problem with that, Mack responded, is that processors again are going to run short of peanuts before the new -- and less expensive -- 1981 crop reaches market in October.
"We think there can be more closedowns of processing operations, some labels will disappear from the store shelves, with the financial future for a number of small peanut processors threatened," Mack said.
American peanut growers are not taking kindly to the processors' efforts to get more foreign nuts onto U.S. shores. They are even more licensed that the processors are backing legislation that would radically alter the federal peanut price-support program.
The Peanut Advisory Board this year began publishing a newsletter to give the growers' side of the story (peanuts are still a good buy, the 1981 crop looks promising, the federal support program is working just fine).
The same New York advertising agency that does the board's newsletter also is trumpeting a similar message for the Southeastern Peanut Growers of America, who have taken off the gloves and accused the processors of making windfall profits from the short crop of 1980.
"This past year, the average U.S. farm price of peanuts was 24 cents a pound, up only 12.5 percent from the previous year," wrote the growers' Mitch Head in his latest communique. "Yet the retail prices of peanuts and peanut butter continue to skyrocket over 80 percent."
Contrary to the Reagan administration's wishes, the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, chaired and populated by peanut-state legislators, have retained the program unchanged in their respective versions of the farm bill. Reagan proposed a gradual change in the peanut program.
But when the Senate begins debate on its measure, possibly next week, one of the first orders of business will be an amendment by Sen. Richard G. Ludgar (R-Ind.) that goes farther than the administration proposal.
Lugar would put tighter controls on the support program and end the exclusive allotment system that precludes many farmers from growing peanuts commercially. Lugar and Sen. Paul E. Tsongas (D-Mass.), his chief ally, already have picked up cosponsorship of a fourth of the Senate and a fierce floor fights is anticipated.
It is though ships are passing in the night. Some of them are carrying peanuts. Peanuts without a country.