TCHULA, MISS. -- Rodalton Hart, a 39-year-old graduate of Jackson State University, has 2,000 acres planted in cotton, corn, soybeans and sorghum. He runs cattle as a sideline, and has a lease with option to buy on 1,500 acres of prime Mississippi Delta river bottom.

He owns his equipment: plows, harrows, tractors, combines, cotton pickers, planters -- you name it. He keeps a two-way radio in his mother's house, and has a pickup with a car phone. He is an authentic hardhead: tough, resourceful, smart, certainly one of the most successful farmers in Holmes County, Miss. He is also black.

Hart realized a long time ago that "the system" discriminates against small farmers no matter what color they are. The lion's share of federal subsidies goes to big farmers; those who produce more get more money. And loans are easier for big farmers to get; those with more property have more collateral. The solution is to grow or die: "Getting bigger," Hart said, "is the only way to survive."

But size alone will not ensure success. Hart is bucking the system and making it work, but history suggests he is playing a losing hand. Black farming in the United States, by almost any measure, is a dying business.

In 1920, the United States had more than 900,000 black farmers, one-seventh of the national total, but by 1978 there were only 57,271. In the last agricultural census in 1987, there were 22,954, a drop of 60 percent in nine years. Black farmers today comprise 0.1 percent of all farmers in the United States.

Gone forever is the stereotypical black sharecropper, working in near peonage on white-owned land to provide the cheap labor that used to be performed by slaves. Mechanization after World War II made such labor obsolete, and sharecropping all but disappeared by 1960. There may be only a few black farmers left today, but they are independent.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission predicted in 1982 that "there will be virtually no blacks operating farms in this country" by the end of the century. There is no reason to doubt this assertion; blacks are leaving farming three times faster than whites.

"You don't have anyone who understands farming anymore. Farmers are disappearing, and there's nobody replacing them," Hart said. "I couldn't encourage my son to go into farming; the system is geared up to get me -- he won't even have a chance."

This year Rep. Mike Espy (D), Mississippi's first black congressman since Reconstruction, succeeded in getting $10 million in minority technical and educational assistance written into the 1990 farm bill -- outreach to save a dying trade: "I don't believe it's too late, but almost," Espy said. "We are going to have to work very hard to arrest the slide."

It is a battle worthy of Sisyphus, for even the best black farmers in Holmes County, about 75 miles north of Jackson, have to struggle with a system that is exasperating on its best days, infuriating for much of the rest of the time.

Discrimination in the modern South is a vicious circle. Because of racism and lack of opportunity, blacks traditionally have farmed the worst land with the worst tools with the smallest investment. They could not and did not call on the white power structure for help.

Today white-owned banks are less likely to lend money to blacks because blacks have the worst land, the worst tools and the fewest assets. By any measure, the banks say, many black farmers are poor credit risks. Black farmers call it racism.

"Blacks don't have proper land, and if you get an opportunity to get land, they {whites} charge more," said Jimmy Lee Lacy. "A black farmer can even have the money and they'll still deny him, especially if it's a white landowner."

Lacy, at 57, has farmed near Tchula in Holmes County for 40 years, starting with cotton, corn, hogs and a mule-drawn plow. Like Hart he is an anomaly, a success amid myriad failures. He has 640 acres planted in cotton and soybeans, almost all of it leased land. He is something of a local legend, known for his ability to make things grow -- and pay -- where nobody else can. "I'll do fair this year," is all he would say. "I always do fair."

To escape the trap that history has sprung on them, black farmers turn to federal programs designed to circumvent the worst of society's biases.

But Lacy and many other black farmers in Holmes County complain about farm programs, especially those of the Farmers Home Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture's lead agency in granting or guaranteeing crop loans to the poor farmers of the Mississippi Delta.

Some of the complaints may be traditional farmer belly-aching. "Farmers Home never gives enough" is a frequent gripe, as is the widely held belief that the agency is staffed by incompetents.

But blacks also charge that Farmers Home systematically and deliberately drowns them in red tape, stalls on loans or responds late to their requests. The agency has an office in every agricultural county in the country, and most counties are staffed by local people.

"I have talked about buying a plot of land from Farmers Home," Lacy said. "The guy I want to talk to is in the office until he finds out I'm black, then he's out of the office all the time."

Lacy said he would like to see "justice in loans" from Farmers Home. What he wants are quick decisions: "A man needs his money on time," Lacy said. "If I apply in February, I want to know in March. I don't want to have to wait until May."

It is a complaint heard throughout the Delta. Loans are agriculture's lifeblood, and Farmers Home is the lender of last resort, vitally important to Holmes County and hundreds of other poor counties in the rural South. A decision by Farmers Home on whether to grant or deny a loan will often determine whether a black farmer can farm.

"As long as we have enough money to meet the needs of the community, we'll spend it," said Holmes County Farmers Home supervisor James L. "Larry" Bowen. "There's a place for the FHA, especially in a county like this. There are a lot of good farmers here, and they haven't got anywhere else to go."

Bowen, a bluff, affable middle-aged white man, is universally liked and respected by the black farmers of Holmes County: "He'll do anything he can for you," Hart said. "The problem is in other counties and in regional and state offices."

Statistics provided by the equal opportunity staff at Farmers Home in Washington showed that blacks received 15 percent of all Farmers Home farm loans in Mississippi in the first quarter of 1990, but only 8 percent of the loan monies. The 1987 agricultural census showed that blacks owned 13.7 percent of all farmland in the state.

These percentages improved dramatically in Holmes County, however, bearing out the view of Lacy, Hart and others that Bowen's office will perhaps go further than others in helping blacks: One-third of all loans in Holmes County, where black land ownership approximates that of the state as a whole, went to black farmers in the first three months of 1990, as did 30 percent of the money.

Since 1988, when department investigators found that Farmers Home was ignoring or violating equal rights laws in hiring practices, housing policies and loan preferences, the agency has tried to make a number of changes in Mississippi. It has given civil rights training to all managers in the state and has conducted 100 civil rights compliance reviews at local offices. A loan program for socially disadvantaged farmers has been started, and the agency has entered into a contract to provide outreach to black farmers with help from Alcorn State College, a black land-grant school.

Specific instances of racial discrimination remain difficult to document, as do charges of deliberate foot-dragging or obstructionism on loans. For many black farmers, however, racism is there, even if they cannot prove it.

"Any young white guy, he has no problem, he goes in there with his father and gets exactly what he wants," said Joshua Davis, 33, a beginning farmer with 162 acres near Tchula planted in cotton and soybeans. "It doesn't work for us. Me and my dad go down there and apply for a loan, and they keep us waiting all day long."

Farmers Home early this year denied Davis's loan application, saying he had no "cash flow," a local euphemism meaning he could show no profit at the end of his crop year. He appealed the ruling, and eventually won, but he still has not seen any money: "Seems like the way they have the system set up, they don't want a young black farmer to get started."

Unlike Hart or Lacy, Davis has struggled ever since he first tried to plant a crop in 1982. One year he got a loan, but could not repay it because rain delayed his harvest and reduced his cotton yield. Another year his son got sick, costing him a lot of money and forcing him to take a town job.

He acknowledged that "I haven't ever made any money farming," but said, "I hold the faith, and I'm hoping to bounce back." With cotton prices close to 70 cents a pound, it begins to look like he might finally succeed. "But there's a lot of time between now and going to gin."

Davis, an easygoing, gentle man who once dreamed of playing professional basketball, takes his inspiration from his father, Shadrach Davis, 68, a stern, imposing, career farmer who marched in Mississippi with the civil rights movement in the 1960s.

Shadrach Davis inherited 300 acres of land south of Tchula from his father and an aunt, and he has raised cotton on it since 1943. This year he got $56,000 in loans, $30,000 of it guaranteed by Farmers Home. But, he said, "I asked for it in February and got it in May. I had to borrow from friends to get seed and plant my cotton."

Shadrach Davis eventually would like to have Joshua take over the family farm, and in the meantime is helping Joshua with money and know-how. Without the boost, Joshua said, "I wouldn't have made it. He took care of himself and me."

More than anything else, Joshua said, he and other young farmers need some sort of a "pool" of federal money "set it aside so that if a young farmer has a bad year the government will stay with them, help them to be successful."

Shadrach agrees, but is not hopeful: "If the little farmer could get some money and help he could do all right. My daddy made a good living on five to eight acres," Shadrach said. "But they're trying to run Josh out of here, take the land. I'll tell you, though, no sucker in the world is going to take my land."

Educational and technical assistance -- from community organizations and colleges -- is the key element in Espy's minority farmers' rights legislation.

"First of all, it will make the USDA and specifically Farmers Home more sensitive to minority farmers," Espy said. "It will also create some allies -- now we have a promotional component for minority farmers just as we have in the farm program in general."

They are small steps to reverse a decline and collapse that have been going on for most of the 20th century, the product of rural poverty in the South and urban promise in the North.

"By the end of the '30s you already had a lot of black farmers shaken loose from the system," said Pete Daniel, a curator in the Smithsonian Institution's Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources. "Then World War II attracted a lot of blacks to industrial jobs, and when they saw how much money they could make, they never wanted to go home."

The Mississippi Delta started to empty out, as the emigrants headed for northern cities and menial jobs in factories and service industries. Shadrach Davis was 20 in 1942 when his four brothers and sister moved to Detroit and Chicago, leaving him alone on the farm. "I never wanted to go north," he said. "My parents were getting old, and somebody had to stay on the farm, so I did."

After the war, the exodus got a further boost from the widespread introduction of big machinery in southern agriculture, especially automatic cotton pickers. "With wholesale mechanization, landowners could abandon sharecropping and tenant farming. They didn't need the labor," said Agriculture Department demographer Calvin Beale. "And by the end of the 1950s, a landowner couldn't go back to the old ways even if he wanted to. There weren't enough people left."

The last jolt to black farming occurred at the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the '80s. President Jimmy Carter encouraged farming and at the beginning of his term, loans were easy to get, even for farmers, who, Rodalton Hart said, "maybe shouldn't have been farming."

But interest rates started to rise, slowly at first, then alarmingly. Farmers defaulted on their loans, and then farms began to fail by the thousands.

The poorest and smallest farmers suffered the most, and blacks took a heavy hit. And as the Reagan years wore on, Farmers Home, badly burned by liberal loan policies, became stingier. Loans were harder to get, and black farmers again were disproportionately hurt.

Holmes County was a microcosm of this process. In 1930 it had 40,000 people and 6,604 farms, of which 5,660 were operated by blacks, many of them sharecroppers. In 1987 it had barely half as many people as it had 57 years earlier, and there were 420 farms and 104 black farmers and no sharecroppers.

Holmes County today is one of the poorest in the nation, with per capita annual income estimated at $3,400 and 70 percent to 80 percent of its inhabitants living below the poverty line. Unemployment is 15.3 percent, the highest in Mississippi. Lexington and Tchula, its two largest towns, are half empty, their streets lined with boarded-up buildings and used furniture stores running fire sales.

Out in the country, the roads are dirt or gravel, flanked by long, skinny clapboard "shotgun houses," so named because a single shotgun blast could rip through them from end to end. Most shotgun houses are tumbledown derelicts today, their porches engulfed by creeper, their sides washed gray by a thousand rainstorms.

Joshua Davis is hanging on, with his father's help.

"Farmers Home wouldn't give me a loan because I didn't have cash flow, but I had assets. I had a tractor, a planter, a cultivator, a harrow and a 40-foot cotton trailer," Davis said. "It cost me $25,000 just for planting expenses, chemicals and poison. I had to get it from dad."

As a young farmer, Davis is a rarity. As a young, black farmer he is even more of a rarity. And as a young, black, small farmer he is truly an endangered species, perhaps soon to be extinct.