The students at the little rural high school in Princeton, Calif., might not exactly fit the definition of struggling family farmers, but they collected $7,087 in federal farm income-support subsidies last year.

The subsidies, called deficiency payments, went to the high school's Future Farmers of America chapter because a couple of its members enrolled their 60 acres of rice in the support program.

"This gives them experience, a learning experience," said Andy Ferrendelli, agriculture teacher and FFA adviser at Princeton High. "They go out and get loans and they farm the land just like the other farmers around here. As far as I'm concerned, they're as entitled to the payments as other farmers."

"With those payments, it helped students who wouldn't have been able to make a profit otherwise because the price of rice is so low," Ferrendelli said. He said the FFA chapter began participating in the federal program in 1959, but said he had no record of how much it had been paid by Washington.

Their landlord, Zumwalt Farms Inc. of Colusa, also benefited from the young farmers' acumen, collecting $3,540 as its share of the deficiency payment the 60 acres of rice qualified for last year. The payments equal the difference between the federal loan-support rate for rice and a higher, congressionally set "target price" that is calculated on production costs.

Zumwalt's one-third share of about $1.5 million distributed among 56 "tenants" on its 16,000-acre rice spread was approximately $750,000. Current law limits individual payments to $50,000, but as the Agriculture Department interprets the statute the limit applies to each partnership rather than to each individual.

The case of Princeton High's farming success emerged from a quick review that the General Accounting Office recently made of federal income-support payments -- an issue that is the subject of heated debate as Congress moves toward passage of a new farm bill.

The GAO study was requested by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.), chairman of the Agriculture Committee, who has waged an unsuccessful campaign to reduce subsidy payments and tighten eligibility rules. Helms intends to renew his push on the Senate floor.

Deficiency payments have been one of the most controversial issues on Capitol Hill this year. Helms and the Reagan administration argue that the subsidies stimulate surplus production -- rice, for example, is in heavy surplus -- and go to farmers who need the least help. Most farm-state legislators contend that the payments are essential to keep hard-pressed farmers afloat.

"The average member of Congress and the average American thinks the $50,000 goes to a struggling farmer who is trying to keep his farm together," said George Dunlop, Helms' committee staff director. "But the GAO has found this is not necessarily so. If this is what Congress intends, then fine. But we ought to understand who is getting these payments."

Dunlop said Helms will ask the GAO for a full-scale, nationwide survey of deficiency-payment recipients. Brian P. Crowley, senior associate director of the GAO, said such a study would require considerable time.

The GAO's quick study produced two other examples of farming operations that received more than the $50,000 individual subsidy limit. Crowley would not speculate on how widespread that situation might be nationally.

One of GAO's examples was another California rice farm, located in Glenn and Butte counties, which reaped $203,000 in subsidy payments last year. The money was divided among five partners, of whom four resided in Pakistan. USDA regulations allow non-resident aliens to collect payments as long as they have a land-owning interest in the American farm.

In the third case, the GAO found a cotton farmer in Bailey County, Tex., who apparently would be eligible for at least $125,000 in payments this year because he was involved in four separate farming operations with relatives or corporate partners.

By USDA interpretation, the farmer could be paid the $50,000 maximum on a solely owned farm and then collect $25,000 from each of his three other incorporated farms, in which he held half interests. A son, a brother and a grandniece held the other halves.