Stuart Denman of Charleston is gone. Anson Sheldon of Greenville is gone. Edgar Hood III of Dundee is gone. Ed Shaw of Coffeeville is going, going, . . . .
Shaw, 59, has farmed since 1947, putting in six- and seven-day weeks to keep up with his crops, cattle and hogs on a 600-acre spread. He owes the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) $600,000, and he knows his days are numbered.
Covered with bone-dry dust, he climbed down from his tractor the other day to talk. "They're gonna close me out," he said, "and all I will have is my home, my clothes and my furniture. I cleared land, built fences, tried to improve this place. We put everything we had back into it. Now I'm living from day to day."
Shaw was denied an FmHA loan last year, but a local bank gave him a small "furnish" to put in a crop. This year's limited planting, to raise feed for his hogs, is financed from his small federal crop subsidy payments.
"Somebody is going to farm this," Shaw said. "But I'd hate to hell to walk out on the back porch and see somebody else working the land that I've put so much into."
Across Mississippi, where weather and low prices have added to the misery, the story is the same. Hundreds, and probably thousands, of Mississippi farmers will be out of business this year because of two events: a tough new FmHA lending policy and a Reagan administration decision -- supported by Congress -- to cut this year's loan money substantially.
The situation here is more acute than in many other states because roughly 60 percent of Mississippi's estimated 48,000 full- and part-time farmers rely on FmHA financing. The bank is closed to those who cannot show that income from a 1986 crop will allow them to stay current with payments on their entire debt.
Robert Williams, chief extension economist at Mississippi State University, estimates that 8 percent to 10 percent of the state's 12,000 full-time farmers may not receive financing this year. "The new administration of the FmHA is being a little tougher on operating loans," he said. "There has been a change of the rules and regulations."
In addition, the FmHA here and nationwide is working with far less money this year. In 1985, the agency had $3.6 billion for direct loans and $1.1 billion for guaranteed loans; this year, it has $2.2 billion for direct loans and $1.7 billion for guarantees.
Until this year, FmHA required only that projected income cover the latest FmHA loan. Federal money was available almost for the asking in the 1970s, but export markets soured and prices toppled in this decade, and farmers went deeper into debt as interest accrued on top of interest. Some farmers, like Stuart Denman, saw their debt mushroom into the millions of dollars, with slim hope of ever repaying.
The get-tough order from Washington, along with a decision by the independent Farm Credit System to cut off its most heavily indebted borrowers, has created bitterness and despair among farmers who are out of business, saddled with huge debt and unskilled for other jobs.
Denman is 63 and owes $3 million. His troubles began in 1984 when his operating loan was overruled by the state FmHA office at Jackson. He has been appealing that decision, but he has given up farming and any hope of paying off his debt. The Federal Land Bank, part of the Farm Credit System, foreclosed on 900 acres of his land. He makes ends meet with a job at a small Charleston grain elevator owned by his daughter.
"What got me was maybe being too ambitious, and I couldn't see the possibility of going busted. I made a lot of the decisions and I take responsibility, but the FmHA did not play by its own rules," Denman said. "They're gonna get half of us gone, and then the farming business will be good again."
The feeling that the FmHA got too tough too abruptly is not restricted to indebted farmers. Robert Carson, a cotton grower from Marks in the Delta, put it this way: "If our national policy is cheap food and fiber -- and I think it is -- then the government has a responsibility to help these people . . . . It is intolerable how some of these FmHA borrowers have been treated. It is not right to change the rules in the middle of the game."
Frank Lowe, an official at FmHA's state office, agreed that "it's a tough situation." But he said "most of these farmers recognize their financial plight, and when it's over, they're glad it is. They are glad they can get on with their lives . . . . We've been prolonging their agony by continuing them from year to year. What we are doing now is a must. They have to be weeded out."
Broken farmers such as Anson Sheldon accept the reality, but bitterly.
"Our problem lies right in the White House -- there's no real listening," Sheldon said. "I owe the FmHA a fortune, but I feel we've been ripped off by the programs and by market manipulation. I can't see the FmHA coming down as hard as they have, but a lot of these boys had abused the programs."
Sheldon said his debt was so large and his repayment prospects so slim that he did not apply for FmHA money this year. "I had two hellacious losses in 1980 and 1981, and since 1980 I have accumulated as much interest at 15 percent as there is principal on my loan," Sheldon said.
"I'm out of farming for now, hauling rice and doing custom plowing. Everybody's trying to scrounge around and take what's coming down the road," he said. "But some boys really are gonna have a hard time making it."
Edgar Hood of Tunica County is out of business, too, planning to return to Mississippi State in the fall to work on a doctorate in agricultural economics.
With fertile soybean and cotton property by the Mississippi River, Hood obtained a $95,000 FmHA loan last year but decided not to apply this year when he learned that the rules were tightened and there would be no chance of repaying his full $237,000 debt.
Hood has looked for work since last fall. He rented his land to another farmer and spent the rest of his time studying FmHA procedures and attempting to energize farmers to hold onto what they can.
"The big fish are eating the little fish; the big planters sit like vultures, waiting for you to go broke so they can pick up your land," Hood said. "But our main problem is that we can't get the FmHA to follow its own rules. They want to cut out as many farmers as they can. If you're not one of the good old boys, they're gonna starve you . . . to death." CAPTION: Picture, Stuart Denman of Chalreston, Miss., has given up farming and any hope of repaying his $3 million debt. His grain storage bins were sold at auction Friday; Map, Mississippi