The Plains

They were mad as hell in 1979 -- mad enough about U.S. farm policy that they got on their big tractors and drove to Washington to protest under the flag of their newly formed American Agriculture Movement.

That protest seems a world and time ago, and the AAM men are back on their farms now, hunkering down for a mean winter. They're alive and well, and, without a doubt, still mad as hell.

The tractorcade got them some attention but it didn't change things. Wheat, corn and cattle prices are down. Interest rates, fuel, fertilizer, equipment and seed costs are up. Government farm policy is essentially the same. Letter From the Plains

It's a situation that drives farmers to despair, although many of them, despite their talk of hard times and political impotence, somehow find a way to keep planting and harvesting. And so it is with AAM in Kansas.

Eight of the farmers who took tractors to Washington gathered with their wives recently at the home of Howard Stude, who farms more than 2,200 acres near here, to talk about their lives since 1979. Most of Stude's friends operate big farms, which is the style out here.

It was a good meeting, for people seem to feel better when they talk about their problems and know they have a willing listener. But it was not an entirely happy meeting. For a visitor from the city it was as disconcerting as it was instructive.

There was conflicting talk: get government out of farming but raise the price-support loans for farm commodities; shut down the Department of Agriculture and fire the bureaucrats but continue some protection for the farmers.

There also was dark talk of conspiracy against the farmer by land-hungry big business, the Trilateral Commission and the Council on Foreign Relations. There was an urgency about returning to the gold standard. Parity-pricing was a term that tumbled off every tongue. That might have been window dressing. What surfaced with more urgency was a pained sense of isolation that comes from not being appreciated, particularly by city folks and political leaders.

The towns in southwestern Kansas are small and far apart, huddled between fields that stretch beyond the horizon. Miles of irrigation pipe attest to the region's aridity. Farm implement outlets outnumber auto dealerships. The men, needing an identity, dress like ranch hands although they are neither western nor cowboys.

The AAM took root in this country and Howard Stude's friends were part of it. Their small-scale uprising in the West and here in the Plains led to the creation of AAM, which pushes the idea that parity-pricing of farm goods would solve all the country's ills.

AAM remains active in Kansas, and its members continue to preach and proselytize with passion for parity, even though economists and politicians put little stock in their ideas.

At its simplest, the theory goes this way: If farmers were paid a higher price for their goods, more money would circulate. Farmers then would buy more, factories would hum, workers would work, the world would be rosy.

But farm policy, if anything, is moving away from the parity concept and the AAM farmers' feeling of frustration grows. Lurking behind that frustration is the sense that people in the cities simply don't understand where their food comes from or how it is grown and priced.

Vi Patswald, who drove 300 miles from Oklahoma with her husband to be at this meeting, thought city readers ought to ponder before lashing out at farmers for rising food prices.

She had just recently taken a bushel of wheat, ground it to flour and baked it in 55 two-pound loaves of whole-wheat bread. A bushel of wheat was selling for $3.73 around here last month. In Washington, a one-pound loaf of whole-wheat bread sells for around a dollar.