Federal loans, state aid programs, leniency by rural banks and ingenious financing schemes apparently have helped avert the major shakeout of debt-stricken farmers that many had predicted for this spring.
Although thousands of farmers have gone bankrupt and the nation's farm economy remains under heavy stress, indications are that more farmers than expected have been able to obtain credit and are planting their crops.
"Somehow the crop is getting in the ground, but who's paying for it, I don't know," said Oliver Hansen, a former Iowa state banking commissioner who runs the Liberty Trust & Savings Bank in Durant, a farm community in the eastern part of the state.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture reports that all but about 5 percent -- roughly 120,000 -- of the nation's 2.4 million farmers were able to get the financing they needed to continue operations this year.
The report tended to reinforce the administration's insistence of last winter that Farm Belt legislators and spokesmen were overstating the severity of the credit squeeze and that President Reagan was justified in vetoing a major farm-credit package that was rushed through Congress.
In Iowa and Nebraska, for example, where some economists had forecast that as many as 10 percent of the farmers would not get financing this year, early figures suggest that between 5 percent and 8 percent are without financing.
But there is a serious question about whether farmers merely have postponed a day of reckoning. And there are pockets of farm country where financing was more difficult to get and greater percentages of farmers are going bankrupt.
In some parts of Iowa, for example, as many as a fourth of the farmers have no financing and will not be able to get it. In other areas, Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) offices are months behind in processing loan paper work and are refusing to give farmers appointments until midsummer, too late to help this year.
"That is true here in North Carolina," said Betty Bailey, a farm counselor with the Rural Advancement Fund in Pittsboro. "There are long delays at the FmHA offices, and the figures show that, compared to 1983, the number of FmHA loan applicants fell from 5,329 to 3,752, which means that people simply gave up or were discouraged at the door."
Overall, though, things appear to be better.
Bailey and others noted that although few banks had taken part in the loan-guarantee program announced by Reagan shortly before last November's election, there were signs that the FmHA released more funds through its direct-loan programs.
Rep. Ed Jones (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Agriculture credit subcommittee, added, "I didn't believe this would happen, but the Farmers Home Administration has turned pretty liberal in recent weeks. We had no reason to believe it would happen from what they were telling us."
But in heavily agricultural Nebraska, Bill Kerrey, agricultural adviser to his brother, Gov. Bob Kerrey (D), said that "the USDA's 5 percent masks the real problem. Five percent is 3,000 farms in Nebraska, and to lose that many small businesses is a significant loss. I consider anything above 1 percent in farm and ranch turnover to be too high."
He added: "There are other indicators of our problems. State tax revenues are down; county property tax revenues are down; teachers and police officers are being laid off across the state; small businesses are closing their doors. The Federal Reserve reports that the number of small businesses in trouble here has gone from 14 to 21 percent in the last six months."
Although the farm casualty rate may not have reached predicted levels in some areas, most specialists say that continuing low prices and high interest rates, falling land values and eroding exports ensure that the judgment day avoided by many farmers this spring will come in the fall or winter.
"What has happened is that community bankers have done everything possible to provide the financing for anyone with a chance of succeeding this year. We'll go until fall and then maybe have to make that hard decision," said Thomas Olson, a Lisco, Neb., banker.
Olson, who led a campaign by the Independent Bankers Association of America to get more federal credit aid, said he and others had not overdramatized the situation in rural America.
"I feel just as strongly now as I did then," he said. "If we have not reached the 10 percent that some said would be unable to get credit, it is because lenders have gone the extra mile."
Iowa banker Hansen added, "We've been surprised by the credit that has been extended to a few people; we wonder if suppliers have used all the caution they should. But then, we have given assurances that we will help some of the more marginal farmers. Maybe we're sticking our necks out."
Mississippi State University extension economist Bob Williams said most farmers in his state had obtained 1985 financing but that "in Mississippi and the mid-South, more than one-third to one-half of our farmers are essentially broke."
"Had it not been for the FmHA, they would not have made it this year . . . . We can continue to loan to some of these folks, but if prices don't respond to cover the loans and help offset past debts, there is a day of reckoning coming on," Williams said.
Iowa State University farm-management specialist Dale Seebach, based in Davenport, said that he gave special counseling to 150 indebted farmers during the winter and that it was clear that at least 20 percent of them had little chance of farming this year.
But, he added, "We didn't reach the 10 to 15 percent estimate of farmers who would not be farming. What has happened is that a lot of these people did what I call 'creative financing' -- borrowing from a relative, offering collateral to someone else for a loan. That was sort of a surprise.
"These people, though, will be back again," Seebach said, "and we will have the whole same set of problems again. It will be even worse because commodity prices are disastrous now and there's not much sign of improvement. These prices have me running scared."