Unsmiling and nervous, Allan and Linda Toedebusch drove into the parking lot just before 1 p.m., climbed out of their rumpled brown pickup and walked slowly into the National Mercantile Bank to meet their maker.

They had come from neighboring Livingston County, almost desperate. With planting time drawing nigh, they still were searching for money to plant this year's crop.

Like scores of other Missouri farmers, they had been summarily rejected by the Production Credit Association that financed them in 1985, even though they had repaid their debt. Prospects were even worse at the federal Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), which had used up most of its operating loan funds.

The worry kept them awake nights, made things tense at home, raised the possibility that their life on the farm would end in failure.

The Toedebusches' ordeal was over by 2:15.

They emerged from the bank, safe for one more year. They had negotiated a $37,000 loan to cover the costs of farming 900 acres of soybeans, corn, milo and wheat, and another $8,000 for their living expenses, which would put them $1,017 above the federally defined poverty level.

The paradox is large. On paper, their equipment and the 256 acres of land they are buying through an FmHA loan give them the appearance of comfortable gentry. In reality, it isn't worth much. Their day-to-day living is without frills; no dining out, no vacations, no family car, no fancy clothing.

"I've made a fine art out of penny pinching . . . . When I need clothes, I go to Wal-Mart a discount chain , we heat with wood that we cut, we use a truck instead of a car, we don't do much socializing. A luxury is the shotgun shells Allan buys to hunt ducks on the farm. For entertainment, I read library books; he watches sports on TV," Linda said.

As is the case for thousands of Midwestern farmers similarly skating on the edge of solvency, farming for the Toedebusches has become a treadmill powered by "ifs" over which they have little or no control.

If the bank's calculations are correct, if the weather cooperates, if the crop is abundant and if prices do not collapse further, they will be able to repay their new loan. They also may be able to pay off a bit more of their land debt and then begin the same uncertain process again in 1987.

Yet stepping off the treadmill has become almost impossible. Although land values are at about half of their 1981 high, very little cropland is selling here. And if the Toedebusches sold out, they would face a huge, unpayable income tax bill.

"We have no choice," said Linda, 39. "We are stuck with the land. I'm getting sick of it, but we have nowhere to turn. I get hyper, emotionally numb. Any source of help I can find I'm going to use, anyone I can talk to . . . . We've been married 23 years and it seems we're no better off than when we started."

Allan, 43, nodded in agreement, but he said he is trying to see the positive side. "I actually feel like I'm ahead of where I was a year ago -- we paid off a $26,000 debt that we had on top of our PCA loan. So we made some money, although we don't have any of it. If the prices were up, we wouldn't need any help at all," he said.

The Toedebusches came to this area in 1974 from the St. Louis suburbs, where he had worked with his father's trucking firm. They began farming on rented land, then bought their first parcel in 1977 for $60,000 -- 120 acres at $500 per acre. They added 136 more acres in 1980, but prices had climbed to $950 and they paid $129,200. "We made a big mistake," Linda said, "buying at that price then, but it seemed the thing to do."

In addition to the land they own, the Toedebusches farm about 640 more acres of rented ground. "We do the maximum amount of acres with old machinery," Allan said. "There is no way we can think about replacement equipment." Allan Toedebusch wondered if people in the cities were getting the straight story about economic hard times in the country. "I go to St. Louis, Kansas City, it looks booming. I don't think people realize what's going on out here. The sad thing is, there're a lot of farmers in worse shape than we are."