Farming was his life, the only thing he ever wanted to do, the only thing he knew. So when the bottom started slipping out of it last summer, Robert Williams went into hiding.

He would leave the house early each morning and go to his fields alone, staying there all day, avoiding friends and family. His pain was acute. He was a failing farmer, heavily in debt with little hope of catching up. For the longest time, he blamed himself.

"It got so bad, I even cringed when the telephone rang," Williams said recently. "I didn't want to see anyone. Didn't want to talk to anyone . . . . There was a lot of stress and depression."

Williams, strong, healthy and in his early 50s, will have no crop this year. He decided last winter to give up before he was forced out. His future is dim; he doesn't know what he'll do. The hurt runs deep and there's a touch of wistfulness in his voice as he tells his story.

It is a story heard all over Mississippi this spring as farmers talk of the personal pain of trying to make a go of it in the hardest times on the farm since the Great Depression. They talk of stress, excessive drinking, quarreling with their wives, becoming reclusive, disliking their work and themselves.

Personal turmoil is not news in America's recession-torn industrial centers, where unemployment lines have superseded production lines for millions of workers. But it is new and different in the countryside, where self-employed farmers, regarded by neighbors as excellent managers and growers, try to come to terms with economic events beyond their control.

There is no easy way to capture the sense of loss that ripples through these towns and villages. Part of the loss, of course, is material, but it goes beyond that to a way of life and a feeling for the soil.

Jimmie Sides, wife of Chappell Sides, another of the financially troubled farmers in these parts, has a framed needlepoint near her kitchen stove that catches some of this. It's called "The Farmer's Wife," and goes:

As I chose him

I chose this land,

This life

And always knew that

As his wife

Midst labors never done

By love we three were wed.

We and the land are one.

Dr. Michael Roberts, director of an Oxford-based regional mental health center that serves seven rural counties in the hill country of north Mississippi, talked about how today's economic convulsions tear at the feelings expressed in Jimmie Sides' wall-hanging.

"These are pretty much self-sufficient people who believe in that American, Protestant work ethic," Roberts said. "When they fail, they look at themselves. We try to get them to understand what they can and can't change, get them to realize they're doing the best they can and not take the blame themselves. We find that the people we serve are getting poorer, and we are finding an increase in alcohol use in this area."

Edgar M. Hood III, a 39-year-old soybean and wheat grower from Tunica, in the fertile Delta near the Mississippi River, said that Roberts was right on point. As the hard times pressed in on him, he, too, took to self-flagellation.

"A farmer who goes broke loses status," Hood said. "He takes it personally, but what he has to learn, like I did, is that it is not his fault.

"I nearly went slap-nuts at first. Alienated my friends, drove them all off. Ran off my wife. I went for counseling to a former minister, read books on therapy, and I got to seeing what was happening. I was blaming myself."

Hood went on: "My farming friends stay drunk a lot, gamble a lot. They're real depressed. Getting divorced. A man's satisfaction is his job security, but when all he hears is negative, he looks at his junk iron farm machinery and he finds a way to scrape up enough money for a six-pack."

In short, for many the sense of independence and a chance to "make it" in farming is gone. Bobby Ross, who farms 377 acres of soybeans and cotton, lives with the day-to-day uncertainty of continued help from the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA). Worries of low prices and heavy debt hospitalized him last fall with severe depression.

"As far as knowing how, I know enough to be a successful farmer," he said. "But everybody I've worked with has gone out of business, and my prospects are dim.

"FmHA has me on a supervised account--I can't spend any money without their approval . . . . It's caused family problems for me.

"I'm not enthused about planting this crop. But I know I have to change my attitude. This farming is in the blood. I don't explain why I keep going and going. You always hope for that price turnaround and that good crop."

Dr. Bob Williams of Starkville, an economist for the Mississippi State University (MSU) cooperative extension service, said the problem for most farmers is that they keep getting that good crop but prices don't turn around. Depression of spirit is guaranteed.

"Mississippi farmers have not been able to live on their income and their debts are accumulating. We've had four years in a row of poor income, and now it would take three straight good years for farmers to pay off their debts," Williams said.

"But there is a lot of questioning and doubt. Why, I had a 33-year-old farmer in my office today. He has been recognized widely as one of the best in the state. He was so depressed, he felt he would have to get out. When your good managers are in that situation, something is not right."

The depression of spirit may be more acute for older farmers like Robert Williams, who, with no other skills, see little hope of employment in anything but agriculture. On top of that, close-out sales like the one Williams held in February are the ultimate nail in the coffin--his whole inventory of land and equipment is gone.

Williams was far behind on his FmHA loan. Prices for his crops were lousy. His operating costs kept right on increasing. There was no way out, and it hurt his stomach to think about it. In his mind's eye, he could see a sheriff's sale at the Yalobusha County courthouse door. Neighbors who considered him a solid farmer would be there and see. Shame would have a field day.

But with the prospect of his loan being cut off by the FmHA, and no hope of recouping in 1983, Williams decided to quit. He gave up his house and 1,200 acres of peanut, soybean, cotton and cattle-grazing land. He sold the tractors, trucks, trailers, cultivators and harvesters that took him years to amass. The sale didn't square accounts--he still owes FmHA--but the pressure is off.

"I don't have that hanging over me," he said. "But I don't know what to do now."

Mike Shaw, 41, whose farming operation grew from 92 acres of cotton to more than 1,400 acres in 20 years, had a heart attack last year. Shaw isn't certain what caused it. His friends insist it was stress.

"I made a slight profit in 1982, but the heavy debt is still there. In 1980, I couldn't even make my tractor payment. I'm back to where I owe more than I'm worth," Shaw said. "Even with time to make my payments, there's no way I'll be out of debt in my lifetime."

These pressures course through the entire community. Lois Jordan, who runs the local coffee shop where farmers meet to commiserate, said, "You want to hear troubles? I've got troubles--I have to listen to these guys all day long."

Doyle Varner, the Yalobusha County extension agent, also listens all day. "I don't want to know too much," he said. "It depresses me, too."

It bears heavily, too, on Bing Barner, the FmHA loan supervisor in Sunflower County whose decisions determine how much help a farmer will get from the government.

"Yes, I lose sleep," Barner said. "I go home and I take this with me. I think about it. I'm a diabetic, and right now my blood sugar's up. I think it's the stress."

So for many, the joy is gone. Frank B. Brooks, of nearby Water Valley, had a last word:

"The first 15 years I was in this, I enjoyed getting up in the morning and doing my farming. Looked forward to getting out there. I no longer enjoy it . . . . My son wants to go to MSU and study agriculture. I intend to discourage him. I won't make a place on the farm for him. I've seen what it did to me.

"And," he added, "this really bothers me. Who's going to feed me when I get old? We won't have people trained to produce food. This is not something I like."