If the major farm irrigators in California's rich San Joaquin Valley are the giants of American agriculture, then National Land for People is the pesky gnat that keeps driving them crazy.

National Land for People brought -- and won -- the suit that shook federal reclamation law to its foundations in 1976 and sent the big western water interests into a tizzy.

The group charged that the government was illegally administering the 1902 reclamation law that provides cheap, subsidized irrigation water to farmers in 17 western states. The group wanted small farmers to get a larger share of the subsidized water.

The court agreed, and ordered strict enforcement of the law's acreage limitations or a rewrite of the law. The last Congress failed to deal with the issue and it is front-and-center again, leading to some high-powered lobbying by agribusiness.

An irony is that all this turmoil was set off by a tiny public interest organization of 800 mostly small farmers and sympathizers scarcely known outside the fertile valley around Fresno that it calls home.

In fact, it is one of a growing number of grassroots groups that promote small family farming and a decentralized food system. It was incorporated in 1974 by a couple of populist gadflies, onetime newspaperman George Ballis and grapegrower Berge Bulbulian, to try to get the federal government to spread some of the irrigation-water largess around.

The group stays alive by selling memberships, buttons, posters and farming publications and by running a six-acre truck farm near Fresno, where it raises experimental crops and studies low-technology energy and plant-propagation techniques.

"We are promoting alternative agricultural practices, encouraging people to become more self-sufficient, since we believe it is in the economical and social interests of the country to have a decentralized food system," Ballis said. "But we have trouble being heard, this area being like a colony in many ways."