When farmers here look out on their fields of wheat, soybeans and corn, they think of brimming, padlocked grain elevators. They think of rains that will delay the harvest. They try not to think of the bank notes they won't be able to pay off.

But for a few minutes the other night at the Tri-Cities school, the farmers unbuttoned their checkered wool jackets, pushed back their caps and found an outlet for their frustations: Curt Donaldson, 34, a compact, boyish-looking carpenter from Lincoln who had a message they could understand.

Donaldson is the Democratic challenger to Rep. Doug Bereuter, the popular Republican incumbent. No one expects Donaldson to win, but that hasn't stopped him from stumping the tiny farm towns in the 1st Congressional District with one of the most unusual campaigns in the country this fall.

Where other Great Plains politicians see gloom and doom comparable to the Great Depression, Donaldson makes a lighter commentary on the times. His stock in trade is humor, but he has a message that is the talk of this prairie district.

"There is no farm problem," he declares, catching their attention. "We've got food on the shelves and it's pretty reasonable this year. I do understand you farmers may have a problem, but that's different from a farm problem.

". . . I can tell you about my grandfather, who left for the central city, but when he was in his 60s, he sneaked out and bought a farm, and didn't even tell my grandmother about it," Donaldson continues. "This is a true story. He did it for investment--and it was such a good investment he was able to keep writing checks to it for the rest of his life.

"When he died, all I got was a broken watch. I figured I'd lost money in farming too. A lot of money. So one thing I've proposed, there ought to be an organization called Farmers Anonymous. Where, when you get the notion in spring to go into town and give it one more shot, and borrow more money than you can possibly repay, that you call me or another recovered farmer, and we'll go drinking.

"I think farming is kind of the last reservation of the American workaholic. Working is kind of the norm rather than the exception. I don't want to be hard on the city, but I know you people work hard out here. Farming seems to be chronic for those who do it and I don't think there's any cure for it.

"It certainly is a problem when I was reading in Time magazine that net farm income is 25 percent of what it was in 1973. I can't figure why you aren't in the town with pitchforks.

". . . I'd be out with a pitchfork, but instead we have a national agriculture policy put forward by a man who didn't even know what parity was. . . . But it didn't stop him from getting 80 percent of the vote in Nebraska.

". . . What do I say? I tell people that I frankly do not believe in exports, because if exports worked, where did all these surpluses come from? And I've asked people to explain to me how, if we can't get rid of corn on the export market at $2 a bushel, how we can get rid of it at a living price of $3.50 and $4? Nobody's been able to explain this to me yet.

"We have a national agriculture policy that consists of praying for bad weather in Australia, Argentina, the Ukraine and Canada. All at once. I think, personally, that's asking too much of God."

Donaldson's solution for low grain prices? He points out that people will pay $500 a pound for marijuana and "think the more you have to pay, the better it is." So "maybe we should outlaw the growing of wheat."

For those who want a piece of Donaldson's campaign literature, it comes with the purchase of a $1 loaf of bread, baked by a friend from flour made from Nebraska wheat. "It is the only honest bread you'll ever see, because we do pay 100 percent of parity for the wheat," he said.

After his appearance at the Tri-Cities school, all 75 loaves were sold in a flurry of dollar bills.