VIENNA, GA. -- To the peanut farmers standing outside Noble's Cotton Gin and Peanut Buying Point on a sultry evening, the prospect of a national recession is so far removed from their troubles that it does not even register.
Their economy has been nuked by a drought that parched two-thirds of this year's crop.
The distant sounds of sabers rattling in the far-off sands of Saudi Arabia and unbalanced budgets clattering in the alien chambers of Washington just makes the farmers angry. It means they cannot get attention when they need it most.
Washington's approach to its budget problems does not wow any of these practical farm boys. It reminds them of Aesop's famous fable of the grasshopper who ate as if summer would go on forever and the ant who methodically stored food for the winter.
Chuck Coley, whose 500 acres of peanuts shriveled, also likes another analogy. "Rome is burning," he said, "and they're just fiddlin'. "
In many ways, the problems of the Georgia peanut farmers are reflections of the unseen economic duress of the 1980s, little islands of despair amid the boom-boom glitter. These people have been hurting for more than a decade and are least able to absorb a national bust.
Georgia's farm belt is thick with little towns such as Vienna (pronounced VY-enna), and they were in trouble long before this year's drought. Vienna, population 3,000 and shrinking, once had four tractor dealers in town. Now it has one.
To see the future, all Vienna has to do is look 13 miles up the road to Pinehurst, once a thriving small town but now reduced to a single store at an intersection.
"The small towns like Pinehurst are already gone," said Hobby Stripling, a local businessman who was Vienna's mayor from 1967 until three years ago. "The places at risk now are towns like this one. If we don't get some help, we're going to be the next to hear the death call."
Vienna, about 105 miles southeast of Atlanta, is the seat of Dooly County and normally ranks first in Georgia cotton production and third in peanuts. It also has a small textile factory that turns out work clothing, a Georgia Pacific plant that produces particle board and two motels to cater to the declining tourist traffic off of the interstate.
But mostly, as farming goes, so goes Vienna.
The long scorching summers began in 1977, and theories about depletions of the ozone layer have become a favorite topic here. Wesley White remembers just two of the intervening years in which drought did not damage the harvest. But this year's string of sizzling 100-degree-plus days was the worst.
"This county has got hotter and hotter and hotter. I'd rather take my million-dollar farm loan to Las Vegas and put it on the red and the black. The odds are about the same," said Jack Wall, who lost his gamble in the fields and holds a salaried job as a county extension agent. "At least in Vegas, I'd know pretty quick if I was going to win or lose."
The picture could not have been rosier last June when the crop looked as if it would be one of the best in years. Then came a scorching July and a sizzling August.
By now, Dooly County's nine cotton gins should be operating 24 hours a day, with hundreds of wagon loads of peanuts streaming into the peanut-buying points every afternoon.
Instead, crop losses in Georgia are in the $500-million range and rising. More than 50 percent of Dooly County peanut crop has been lost. Cotton yields are down 70 percent. The other day, only three wagons stopped at Noble's vast peanut warehouse.
Last month, Gov. Joe Frank Harris (D) asked the federal government to declare an agricultural disaster in 138 of Georgia's 159 counties, so farmers could receive federal disaster aid.
But federal officials warned that the peanut business would not receive much attention while Washington was having trouble keeping its own head above water.
The sinking feeling is that Washington, preoccupied by the budget crisis, sounds of war and a national recession has no time for peanut problems. Places such as Vienna will have to go it alone.
Going it alone could be lonely indeed.
Nobody likes the warning signs here. Last month, the Georgia Pacific plant closed for a week, the first time that has happened in anyone's memory. Gas sales are down at Hobby Stripling's Zippy Food Mart and Service Station, and the automobile is the only way to get around, which means people are not getting around.
"Businesses have been changing hands pretty regular around here," said Ellis Davis, the third proprietor of the True Value Hardware Store in the last dozen years. "One of the motels has changed hands five times. The Chevrolet dealer has changed four times."
Davis's sales are off this year by 30 percent from a year ago.
"Our recession is here," he said. "Last year at this time, I had completely sold out of sporting goods and shotgun shells. Look at them," he added, gesturing to the shelf. "I've got a 30 percent carry-over on peanut-plow blades. If the price of oil goes to where they're predicting, it will be devastating."
Downtown, at the Bank of Dooly, President Neil Joiner is preparing for a bad winter. Nearly all of his bank's loans are annual operating loans for seeds, fertilizer and equipment for farmers, and they are due in November and December when the harvest is in.
"Some of the farmers have already come in and said they're going to be very short," Joiner said. "One of the things we're looking at is to see if there's a way to restructure and refinance some of that debt. From the bank's standpoint, that's going to be very difficult to do."
Recently, the first foreclosure notices appeared in the local newspaper.
"At one point, during the '30s, John Hancock and Metropolitan Life owned all the land in this county," White said. "At this rate, they'll soon own it all again."