HOLLIDAYSBURG, PA. -- Here in Blair County the eyes, ears and muscle of Agriculture Secretary Richard E. Lyng are scrunched between a Mister Donut and a PhD psychologist's consultorium not far from a restaurant called The Dream.
Such metaphor. Dreams, mental gyrations and, of course, sugar-coated goodies from the federal treasury are sought after and dispensed in Lyng's name from a small complex of Agriculture Department offices in the Blair Street Village shopping center in this west-central Pennsylvania town near Altoona.
Farmers seeking crop-support loans and subsidies, poor and low-income people who receive low-interest housing loans, developers and farmers with soil erosion problems beat a regular path to the USDA's "one-stop" service center, a concept the department has had in place nationwide for 25 years.
Those in charge of these offices are the bureaucrats that politicians and an offended citizenry occasionally complain about. But they're also the government employes who make the grab-bag of federal programs and regulations work. And make no mistake: They are Lyng's eyes, ears and muscle.
On this day, for example, Calvin Rhodes, county supervisor for the Farmers Home Administration (FmHA), will be sending a letter to a single woman whose mortgage is based on the lowest interest rate. Her rate will go up because, after her neighbors tipped him off, Rhodes determined that an employed male friend has moved in. Rules say the subsidy must be cut.
"Single women are our best borrowers, but their payments change if a boyfriend with income moves in," Rhodes said. "If that happens, I know about it the next day -- the neighbors always call."
Next door in the office of the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), fledgling county director Paul A. Winkloski is rolling his eyes. He is awed by a stack of loose-leaf notebooks full of interpretations and alterations of the rules that govern the farm-support programs. At his elbow is another stack: loose pages just in from Washington, more changes to memorize and enforce.
"They train you, but it's no substitute for experience," Winkloski said. "When I came on, we had no district director for a while and I felt kind of left hung out to dry . . . . We are here to implement the programs but some farmers take you as an enemy, even when you're trying to help. You get caught between Washington and the farmer. All the complaints come to you; you get attacked."
In the adjoining office, Larry Parvin of the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) is wondering how he's going to get all the work done. Short of staff and hampered by budgetary restraints in Washington, Parvin said he is "up against the wall" because of new demands from details of the 1985 farm legislation. "We're trying to do more with less," he said. "You can't think ahead. You assume an attitude of dealing with your problems on a day-to-day basis."
This is pretty typical stuff in the USDA field offices. Most counties in the nation are served by these one-stop centers; most of the offices are run by people who make major financial decisions, handle large amounts of federal money and, for their trouble and responsibility, receive less-than-extravagant salaries.
Rhodes, 59, and Winkloski, 25, represent the extremes. Rhodes, who studied agricultural economics at Penn State, has gone as high as he can go as a county supervisor, making $35,326 annually after 26 years with FmHA. Winkloski, a 1986 graduate of Penn State, began as a GS-5 trainee at $14,000 and climbed to a GS-7 ($18,358) when he became chief of the county ASCS office in April. After a year on the job, he'll move to a GS-9 ($22,458).
College classmates started at higher salaries, but Winkloski is stoic about that. Unmarried, he lives on his parents' farm in Westmoreland County and commutes 124 miles daily to his job here. "I wanted to farm, but finances were the problem. Then I wanted to go into the Extension Service -- extension was my minor at Penn State. I would have gone with Extension, but they were having budget problems, too," he said. "So, I'm here."
After finishing at Penn State, Parvin, 41, taught high school vocational agriculture for eight years. He joined the SCS in 1976 and holds a GS-11 in the $30,000 range, with a wife and two teen-age daughters. He is articulate, precise and intellectual, with ambitions to move up the SCS ladder -- although he probably would have to leave Pennsylvania because most higher positions in the state are filled.
These differences aside, Rhodes, Winkloski and Parvin share some common ground. All three talk enthusiastically about their work; all three complain about huge amounts of paper work that their jobs require; all three, in varying ways, find accomplishment and satisfaction in their roles as providers of help to rural people.
"We have the freedom to make decisions here at the district level in SCS," Parvin said. "We are allowed to perform up to our level of competence, you might say. You design, plan and supervise conservation and erosion control projects. To us, this is great because you don't have to call someone else for approval. But it's not a free rein. We do have accountability."
Rhodes' record speaks for itself. Until 1984, Blair Countians who wanted FmHA farm or housing loans had to go to Huntingdon County. The agency then put an office here, and Rhodes, who was in nearby Cambria County, was made supervisor. He cleared up a backlog of loans and, over the past two years, has posted the top record in the state for loan processing.
"It gets frustrating and there's a lot of stress," he said. "We go to a lot of training sessions on stress. It gets to you after a while. That's why I have a small farm. I relax there. If I didn't have that, I'd go up the wall.
"I'm not complaining, but I haven't had a 'step' increase in five years," he said. "Some FmHA offices do nothing and they get the same pay. One office made 20 loans last year with four employes; we made 99 loans with three people."
Another beef: "The public doesn't appreciate what we do," he said. "I've got 390 housing loans and very seldom do I ever get a compliment from one of those borrowers. They almost seem to want something from the government . . . . And I feel we should be helping the family farmer -- good, honest, hard-working people. But they don't want to hear you say 'no' either. Some farmers feel the government owes them a living."
Parvin gets his kicks from seeing the Blair County landscape change for the better because of erosion-control projects, from knowing that a $1.2 million watershed renovation project is bringing wild brown trout back to stretches of Clear Creek and from sensing greater public concern about erosion problems.
Although the county averages an erosion rate of 11 to 14 tons per acre -- USDA says anything above five tons is serious -- Parvin does not despair. "I spend about 80 percent of my time educating," he said. "We're always trying to motivate the conservation ethic. It is something that is learned . . . . Sometimes I scratch my head over all the paper work, but I enjoy this job about 300 percent more than vocational agriculture. I get satisfaction from solving a problem."