A new dirty word has crept into the traditionally earthy language of the American farmer.
It's spelled F-m-H-A, and it stands for the Farmers Home Administration.
Time was, the FmHA got little but appreciation for its role as a benefactor of farmers who couldn't find financial aid in standard commercial channels. But that has changed.
Here in Ohio, as in other parts of the country, farmers and members of Congress are in a state of high agitation over FmHA's handling of 1982 farm operating loans and its treatment of heavily indebted farmers.
They say that Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block and the FmHA have not kept their promise of leniency in dealing with farmers' financial problems in these trying economic times.
A federal court ruling in Georgia this month held that FmHA rules discriminate against farm-loan applicants. This led members of Congress to order a General Accounting Office investigation of the agency's loan policies.
Rep. Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), one of the complaining legislators, said, "The record is very clear. They are not being lenient with loan applicants. There is no sense of humaneness. FmHA has become antagonistic--they want people to come in on their knees, begging. The administration thinks it can save money this way. They don't understand that FmHA is supposed to be a service."
FmHA administrator Charles W. Shuman assured the House Agriculture Committee earlier this year that his agency did not have a "hit list" of delinquent farm accounts it wanted to phase out, although policy directives sent to the states suggested otherwise.
The latest FmHA figures, through the end of May, show that 33.9 percent of its farm loans were delinquent. Legislators contend that many of the delinquencies are the result of a shaky farm economy, depressed commodity prices and weather damage, rather than poor management.
Block pledged to be lenient with farmers in trouble through no fault of their own, but FmHA statistics indicate a rapidly rising number of "forced" and "voluntary" liquidations, farmers giving up because they've been told by FmHA they can't make it.
Between October and the end of April, there were 351 FmHA foreclosures (compared with 140 in all of fiscal 1981). During the same period, 4,018 borrowers gave up the ghost. In May, another 1,477 borrowers packed it in.
While Block and his lieutenants steadfastly deny that FmHA has followed the coercive course that Daschle asserts, they find few believers in farmers like Eugene Patrick, a widely respected, innovative farmer who raises corn and soybeans on a 1,000-acre farm in Pickaway County, 40 miles south of Columbus.
Patrick took Block seriously when he pledged earlier this year that the FmHA loan policy would be guided by patience, generosity and efforts to guide economically troubled farmers through the hard times.
But somehow, Patrick figures, Block's promise got lost in translation. After months of haggling with the FmHA, facing new questions each time he answered the last ones, Patrick still can't get the 1982 operating loan for which he says he is qualified. His loan denial by county and district offices is being appealed to state headquarters.
Meanwhile, Patrick financed this year's planting with extended credit from Don Humphrey, his fertilizer dealer, who in return has a mortgage on the farmer's crop. Humphrey said he is carrying about 15 percent of his 5,500 customers in similar fashion, a severe strain on his business, because of generally tightened lending policies in this area.
Patrick and his wife, Joanne, began negotiating with FmHA for 1982 operating money in October when it became clear that the Production Credit Association, which finances the bulk of Pickaway County's farmers, was going to get tougher.
The PCA's tightening threw a wrench into FmHA operations. As FmHA offices around the state were besieged with loan requests from farmers, they couldn't keep up with the paper flow. There weren't enough clerks and loan officers.
Paul Corson, head of the FmHA office in nearby Circleville, conceded that there had been problems. "Eventually, we had enough personnel, but unfortunately it took a lot of applications to pile up before we got the help we needed. . . . This state's FmHA offices are not very well staffed. Hopefully, the higher-ups will not let this happen again."
But there was something else new in the FmHA equation this year. Corson, again: "Anybody who came through here will tell you it took too long. But it takes time to meet all the requirements. And there were many changes this year. We were authorized to speed up the procedures, but even with that, a lot of farmers around here didn't know by March 1 that they wouldn't have credit from other sources."
The Patricks, however, prepared for the worst. They got nowhere with FmHA. The accountant and the lawyer they hired to help them got nowhere. They now have a thick dossier that amply documents the frustrations of dealing with an agency that won't give yes for an answer.
Perhaps the most curious element in their dossier is FmHA's rejection of what appeared to be an innovative effort by the Patricks to deal with their problem.
"We knew we had to achieve a better cash flow because of the debt we incurred from hail damage in 1980 and low yields due to bad weather last year," Patrick said. "So we went out and got a contract to grow white corn, a contract with a milling firm for $3.50 a bushel, or about 75 cents more per bushel than we could get from yellow corn."
One of FmHA's rejections held that white corn wouldn't bring that price, even though the Patricks had produced a contract. Another FmHA rejection quoted an Ohio State University corn specialist to the effect that the Patricks' yield projections were too high.
But the specialist, Lawrence N. Shepherd, said in another document that Ohio State had no data on white corn yields. He suggested that FmHA follow yield projections from white corn experts at the University of Kentucky, whose information Patrick had used to buttress his application.
John J. Bowen, the Patricks' accountant, is in a quandary over this case, the most complicated and frustrating, he said, in his 20 years of helping farmers with their finances.
"During the last five years, credit institutions have required more information and better record-keeping by farmers. But the negative of this is that farmers believe with all their heart that they can tell these institutions their problems and get a response that is helpful. What they're getting now is a cold curtain," Bowen said.