Subject: Unused Federal farm program money.

Moral: Wait long enough and there'll be a rural crisis to spend it on.

Back in the early 1940s, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal Farm Security Administration was trying to reshape the countryside in the aftermath of the Depression, the government sent a wad of money out to Oregon to help put people back on the land.

But somehow the money never got spent. It sat there for more than 40 years in an account administered by the state division of lands, collecting a tidy chunk of interest every year that in turn was funneled into the state school support program.

Forever and a day, presumably, the old FSA fund would have continued to pay part of the cost of educating young Oregonians had someone in state government not leaked word of the nest egg to Olivia Clark, board chairman of the Oregon Rural Housing Coalition.

Since $475,000 of the federal farm assistance money was languishing unnoticed and not being used for the purposes originally intended, and since Clark's group was desperate for money to get some housing projects built for migrant farm workers, she conjured up a "guinea pig."

"There was originally an agreement between the state and the federal government that outlined how the money could be used, as grants or loans for just about anything related to agriculture, to be administered by the old Oregon Rural Rehabilitation Fund," Clark said.

Her "guinea pig" was a proposal for a $28,000 loan from the fund to help a farmer revamp housing for migrant farm workers. To Clark's surprise, the State Lands Board approved the loan this spring. It appeared to be the beginning of a good thing.

"We'd like to see it as small loans to do something great, turn it into a farm worker housing program," said Clark. "There's so little money available and it's so hard to get funding through the Farmers Home Administration [successor to the FSA], this would be ideal. The need is here: 40 percent of Oregon's agriculture is labor-intensive crops."

But then, apparently recognizing the precedent it was setting with the loan, the board put on hold any further spending of the money until other project proposals could be considered.

Patricia McCaig, an assistant to the secretary of state who has researched the origin of the mystery money, said the fund actually had been tapped several times in the past for farm-related projects and that in each instance the loans had been repaid.

Clark's problem now is that, since she discovered the small-scale Comstock Lode, everyone else with a project to fund has an eye on the money. The lands board put out a call for proposals three weeks ago and it expects a heavy response.