He has been on television, major publications have eulogized him, farmers and rural towns have rallied for him, members of Congress have basked in his glow and his case has reached as high as the White House.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) offered to serve a jail term for contempt in his place. That thwarted, Grassley worked on his farm free last weekend to spotlight Wayne Cryts' plight.

Cryts could be, as some think, a tractor-riding Robin Hood. Or he could be, as a judge has called him, a thief in overalls.

In either case Cryts, 35, is the farmer from Puxico, Mo., who "liberated" 31,000 bushels of soybeans from a bankrupt storage elevator at Ristine, Mo., last year.

Elevator-warehouses, where many farmers store their grain until it is sold, are a vital link in the farm marketing system. But when an elevator goes bankrupt, the farmer has to wait in line with the all the other creditors to claim his property.

Cryts' case has drawn incessant media attention for Cryts and the American Agriculture Movement (AAM), of which he is national vice chairman. It built to a pitch this spring with his 34-day jailing for contempt, his furlough to testify on Capitol Hill and finally his release.

Cryts is back in the news, now under order of a federal bankruptcy judge in Little Rock to pay $287,000, plus $1,500 for each day he fails to cough up the money, as a result of his raid on the Missouri elevator.

"Mr. Cryts envisions himself to be some sort of folk hero who has been called on from high to right the wrongs inflicted upon farmers when grain elevators fail," said Judge Charles Baker. "He has stolen from the court and his neighbors. He ought to be punished for his criminal acts."

Cryts answered, "I don't look at myself as a hero. If there are any heroes in this, it is the people who came to help me . . . . I think this case has caused a major turnaround in public opinion . . . . But it concerns me that the judge calls me a thief. If that is so, he ought to convict me."

A detail that most press reports and congressional expressions of sympathy and indignation have omitted is that the soybeans Cryts heisted from the elevator were mortgaged, according to the government, even though he resold them when they were frozen as assets by Baker's bankruptcy court.

In effect, the government says, Cryts has been paid twice for the same beans.

The first time, he got a little more than $4.50 a bushel when he used the beans as collateral for four federal loans. The second time, after raiding the elevator, he sold them for just over $6 a bushel.

Cryts, in an interview this week, contended, as he has all along, that the beans were his. And, just as adamantly, the Department of Agriculture says the beans belonged to the Commodity Credit Corp. and could not be sold by Cryts.

His commodity loans totaled $141,918. And when he forfeited last summer, according to the government, the beans became CCC property under Baker's supervision.

Cryts agreed that he had a debt to the government for selling the soybeans. But he claimed, as he has before, that he can't get USDA's attention. He said the CCC had rebuffed his efforts to make payment before the loan was called last summer.

"There was never a real effort to pay off the loans," said Everett (Bud) Rank, chief of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service, which handled the transaction. "Cryts made a brush-by, that's all."

Cryts responded, "I don't know what more you can do. I tried to pay by check and by cash, but they would not accept either."

USDA's version is that the first offer was to pay with a postdated check, which was rejected because it violated agency policy. The cash offer, first rejected and then approved by USDA, was not followed up with payment, said Edward D. Hews, head of a departmental study team on grain elevators.

Congress, meanwhile, is debating legislation designed to alleviate the situation that Cryts says his campaign intended to highlight. With elevator failures increasing, farmers say they fear that their grain will lose value or be tied up in lengthy bankruptcy proceedings.

The Senate three times last year passed a bill sponsored by Sen. Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) and Grassley that would give farmers extra protection in elevator bankruptcy cases by putting their claims ahead of other creditors'.

But Chairman Peter W. Rodino Jr. (D-N.J.) and other members of the House Judiciary Committee have resisted the idea of special protection for farmers. A Rodino subcommittee has adopted legislation directing expedited hearings on assets questions in elevator bankruptcies, but not going as far as Dole and Grassley.

"We want to be helpful, but we don't want to destroy the equity of the bankruptcy code," a Rodino aide said. "Once you alter the setup for one group, you are in trouble with others . . . . The Dole approach is a bit much. The politicians in the Senate seized on this as a demagogic situation, and they're riding the crest of it."

Before he went to the Cryts farm, where TV cameras filmed him at work, Grassley issued a news release last week talking about Cryts' removal of "his own grain" from the Ristine elevator. An aide conceded that the senator might have been unaware of the loan details, but said that he was more concerned about unfair treatment of farmers in bankruptcy cases.

Dole was so adamant last fall that he threatened to torpedo the House-Senate conference on a new farm bill, in which he wanted his bankruptcy language incorporated. Only fervent pleading by House Agriculture Chairman E (Kika) de la Garza (D-Tex.) and a promise by Rodino of hearings got Dole to back off.

In another approach, Rep. Donald J. Albosta (D-Mich.) has introduced a bill to create special insurance for grain stored in private elevators. Sen. David H. Pryor (D-Ark.) is preparing an expanded version of the Albosta measure for Senate consideration.

"The Cryts case has brought a flood of calls and questions from farmers who want to know what we are going to do," a Pryor assistant said. "We need to do something about the farmer who is unprotected and hurt in these situations. Some type of insurance could help."

Farmer Cryts, for his part, said he intended to appeal Baker's order because "we're going to fight this all the way and I'm still optimistic. I feel so strongly I won't negotiate. We're 100 percent right or 100 percent wrong, and my family is committed to that."

And his allies in the Missouri AAM are doing their bit to raise money for the cause. They're selling little jars of "genuine Cryts-strain Ristine soybeans" for $6 apiece.