The farmers who till the black soil that surrounds this village have about as much experience with starvation and death as the farmers of Iowa.

For, like Iowa, this is a farmer's promised land. The lowland soil needs no fertilizer. Compared to most of Ethiopia, a farmer does not even have to work hard to keep his children and cattle fat. In the last great famine of 1973, no one here went hungry as the land served up surpluses of grain and livestock.

Now skeletal children lie on the roads, stopping traffic to beg for food. Families wander the ash- brown hills eating wildflowers and the roots of weeds. As it has been for nearly two years in the hard-scrabble highland to the north, there now is almost nothing to eat here in Ethiopia's promised land.

Trailing behind the most severe drought in recent memory, Ethiopia's famine is rolling southward out of the mountains and into the nation's breadbasket. It has outdistanced the food distribution centers, emergency feeding camps and makeshift hospitals that have been built to save lives in the north. As the Ethiopian government and private relief agencies scramble southward to catch up, thousands of malnourished peasants here, accustomed to plenty, are dying of pneumonia, dysentery and measles.

In a report issued this week on the spreading famine, the government said that in Shewa Province -- almost in the center of the country -- the number of people affected by famine has increased by nearly 80 percent in just two months, from 436,000 to 780,000.

Even that statistic understates the severity of the famine's impact. For it has not spread evenly across the province. Near Addis Ababa, for example, in southern Shewa, fields are green and cattle are frisky. The damage is concentrated in northern Shewa, particularly in a district called Yifrata Ndjile. Until the rains stopped falling in l98l, Yifrata grain was known across Ethiopia.

The government says that 4,000 people have died because of famine in the district since August, which is when the last of the farmers' food reserves ran out. In the past year, 188,850 farm animals have also died -- including 1,819 camels.

The focal point for the district's misery is the feeding center here in Senbate. It feeds 4,400 children, about 4,000 more than it can properly handle, according to Sister Ruth Gjerding, who opened the center with another Danish nun eight weeks ago.

The death rate at Senbate is between 20 and 30 a day, according to the center's one doctor. By comparison, at the highland feeding center at Korem, more than 100 miles to the north, where there are about 13 times as many people, the death rate is about 35 a day.

A gray-haired woman named Anshaw, a Moslem from the nearby town of Merewa, sat in the dirt at the feeding center this week waiting for food. She had come to Senbate just after dawn and was still waiting at noon for her ration.

Lying almost motionless in her arms was her 10-year-old son, Halima Mohammed. Flies crawled on the child's face and eyes, concentrating their attentions on an open sore on his forehead. He made no attempt to shoo them away.

Like 25 percent of the children in the Senbate center, Halima suffers from marasmus, a starvation syndrome that makes children look like skinny old men. The percentage of marasmic children at Senbate is seven to eight times higher than Ethiopia's national average, which is among the highest in the world.

"I had 30 cattle. Now I don't have a single one," the boy's mother said through a translator. She said that her husband and one of her six children have died in the famine. Before she walked to Senbate, she said, she and her children had survived by digging for roots, eating wildflowers and collecting wood to sell for 50 cents a bundle.

The woman and her child were kept waiting for food because there is not enough to go around at Senbate. There are more than 100,000 tons of food arriving at Ethiopia's ports this month. Relief officials say that food should be sufficient to meet the needs of the 7.75 million people who are said to be affected by famine. Senbate, however, is a new depot for the hungry and, as such, is struggling to build a supply link with the food bureaucracy.

On Wednesday, a government-run food distribution center opened about a mile down the road from the children's feeding center here. Since it had a limited supply of grain, it rationed food benefits to half the government's recommended minimum, but still ran short of grain one day after it opened.

"The government and every organization is giving too much attention to the north," said Dr. Fissehatsion, the doctor at the children's feeding center. Standing outside his clinic, the doctor, an employe of the government's Ministry of Health, became visibly angry while explaining the center's high death rate.

"If we could have started intensive feeding right from the beginning, we could have saved most of these children," he said. "We have medicines for the children, but the death rate is so high because everybody is not getting food."

The center's water was making children sick, the doctor said. He grabbed a clay pitcher containing water and poured the muddy liquid -- thick with brown flecks -- into the palm of his hand. The water, he said, is carried to the camp from a local stream. He said there was no money to dig wells, which supply disease-free water to northern feeding camps.

"If you want to acquire disease," the doctor said, thrusting his hand in front of a reporter's face, "drink this water."

In an angry appeal to international aid donors earlier this week, the head of Ethiopia's Relief and Rehabilitation Commission said the world has not supplied enough food to keep up with the country's mushrooming "catastrophe" of famine.

To stave off the catastrophe, Dawit Wolde Giorgis demanded that donors support the government's plan to resettle about 1.5 million people from the drought-scorched north to more fertile land in the southwest along the Sudanese border. More than 70,000 highlanders have already been moved.

As part of the resettlement, scores of buses and trucks carrying peasants from the highlands rumbled through Senbate this week on their way south. Without slowing down, the buses and trucks passed within 20 feet of the feeding camp.

The people of northern Shewa are not supposed to be part of the resettlement. Their land is too rich to abandon. Their only option is to survive until the rains come.