Penthouse – September/October, 1978

Part One: The Destruction of the American Farmer

Things will be better for those farmers who can survive. – James Earl Carter, Jr., at a meeting with farm leaders in 1978.

On January 20, 1977, the oath of office was administered to James Earl Carter, Jr., of Plains, Ga., and he become the first farmer to assume the presidency since Thomas Jefferson of Shadwell, Va., did so on March 4, 1801. That distinction was the most prominent feature in the day’s extensive press accounts of the new chief executive’s life.

Ironically enough, as a young man, Jimmy Carter hadn’t really wanted any part of farming. When Carter abandoned Georgia for the United States Naval Academy, he had clearly decided to leave turning red dirt to those whose dreams could fit inside the confines of tiny (population 683) Plains. His couldn’t Carter figurted that his younger brother, Billy, would be old enough to take over the family’s farm and wholesale peanut shed whenever his father, James Earl, Sr., was no longer able to run the business. It took a family tragedy to get Jimmy Carter back from the navy and on the farm to live. In  1856, when brother Billy was still sixteen, James Earl, Sr., dided suddenly of cancer and Jimmy cut his military career short to return to Plains, intent on saving his family’s business from financial collapse.

In his first year back, the future president grossed around $90,000 and out of that netted something in the neighborhood of $200.

Although the benefits didn’t show up in his 1953 ledgers. Jimmy Carter had returned in the middle of a transformation in the peanut industry. This transformation first of these was mechanization. Picking machinery, which let farmers multiply their acreage to more than six times their previous practical size, was introduced into Georgia during the fifties. Other technology proceeded to modernize quickly the drying, shelling, and sorting end of peanuts as well. Jimmy Carter followed the technological advance and bought his first peanut sheller late in the 1950s. The Carters finally replaced that first sheller with the latest model during the year before Jimmy won the presidency. The new machine is the size of half a city block, cost more than $1 million, shells 2,400 pounds of peanuts an hour, and has electric eyes that sort out the culls. The addition of the first sheller had let the Carter family business deal directly with such processors as Best Foods and Procter and Gamble, instead of selling through a middleman commercial sheller. The profits from that advance into the market the Carters dealt in had proved consistently rewarding.

This stable market was the second development in the continuing transformation of the peanut industry, and the federal government is largely responsible for it. Government support for the peanut industry takes two basic forms. The first is the control of supply. The total tonnage of peanuts available to U.S. buyers is limited by both import restrictions and a federal program which requires that a farmer possess one of a limited number of government allotments in order to plant and harvest peanuts legally. The second form of governmental support is a system of federal purchases not wanted by processors can be sold to U.S. Department of Agriculture. The year Jimmy Carter began his run on the presidency, the USDA purchased 30 percent of the domestic peanut crop. During the month Carter accepted the Democratic party nomination, the government was paying $415 a ton for peanuts that were selling at $250 on the world market.

With that kind of help, wholesaling peanuts became a hard business in which to lose money. The Carters had done well by Plain’s standards. In 1976 candidate Jimmy’s net worth was estimated at $600,000. By then, the bulk of the Carter family business was concentrated in buying and selling peanuts, and the family simply grew seed peanuts, and the family simply grew seed peanuts on the side. The Carters 227-acre peanut allotment was sharecropped by Leonard Wright, a black man who lived down the road.

Even so. it was as a farmer that Jimmy Carter became known to the rest of the nation. His  projected image of farmer was a key element in his success. Although farmers make up only 3.8 percent of the nation’s population and have relatively few votes, they are the living repositories of some of our central cultural myths and images. Since few urban voters actually know any farmers. the role has receded into a set of distant yet responsive chords in the electorate’s mind, ideal material for advertising purposes. Farmers get up early, feed the chickens. eat well. practice traditional and patriotic virtues. and don’t have smog. In noisy. nervous. and alienated urban and suburban America. a farmer seemed reliable, honest, and, above all, safe. Atlanta ad man Gerald Rafshoon’s campaign commercials showed Jimmy Carter in jeans and work boots, striding through the red clods of  Georgia toward a far line of pines. Jimmy’s peanut became a symbol of virtue and the common person.

Jimmy Carter continued to seem the farmer on the day of his  inauguration. Instead of riding in the president’s armored limousine, the Carter family walked down Pennsylvania Avenue to the White House. The farmer’s morning stroll was the lead on the evening news and was seized upon as a brilliant stroke of rural style. not to mention its being a goldmine of video opportunities.

At the time no one thought to consider this stroll an omen of things to come. In the middle of that winter, it was too much to imagine that one year later a crowd of more than 10,000 angry farmers would take the same route along Pennsylvania Avenue. They would call for a national agricultural strike and say nothing but bad things about the farmer who had preceded them the year before. Before the last wave of farmers finally left in April, they would stand outside the cast-iron White House fence. screaming that Jimmy Carter should never call himself a farmer again.

There are as many reasons for the farmers’ political showdown as there are farms, but the farm that Jimmy Carter left behind had as cogent a collection as any other farm did. When Carter left for Washington, Leonard Wright was given full use of the Carter land without having to share the profits. Wright proceeded to plant corn and peanuts. That spring corn was selling at $2.50 a bushel. By June 1977 it was clear that Georgia was in the midst of the worst drought since 1954. At harvesttime Wright’s cornstalks came up only as high as his knee, and the peanut yield was poor. By then corn prices had fallen to $1.80 a bushel, far below Wright’s cost of production. Wright wouldn’t say exactly how much money he had lost,  but he did admit that he’d have to go back to the bank for refinancing in order to continue farming. By October 1977 Leonard Wright was considering applying for a federal disaster loan.

James Earl Carter, Jr,. of Plains. Ga.,  the thirty-ninth president of the United States. had picked the right time to get out of farming. The bottom was rapidly falling out of the business.

Although the publicly buttressed and relatively tiny peanut industry had been slow to feel the effects of the worst farm depression in four decades, it had been brewing for three years when Jimmy Carter took office.

According to USDA statistics, the United States had some 2. 7 million farms in the beginning of 1977. Altogether they were the single biggest industry in the economy. Ninety-nine percent of those farms remain family operations. although their sizes vary greatly. Nineteen percent of them produce 78 percent of total U.S. agricultural output. By far the largest number of farms (1.4 million) grow wheat in the wide belt of prairies between southern Montana. northern, Texas eastern Colorado, and the Oklahoma-Arkansas border. Corn and soybeans are the next most common crops and are grown all over the Midwest and South. From a total national investment of $564 billion in 1976. agricultural producers netted only some $20 billion. At that rate of return. an average of 1.000 farmers a week went out of business. After we make adjustments for the bloat in the dollar over the years, we find that 1976 was the worst year in real farm income since 1936. Within four months after Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, it was clear that 1977 would be even worse and would approach 1934 in terms of total agricultural disaster. There was little relief in sight. In June 1977 Fortune magazine estimated that the total net farm income in 1978 could drop as low as $17 billion. a return to the depths of the 1929 depression in rural economies.

Rising production expenses were obviously eating agriculture alive. In five years costs of fertilizers had risen by 253 percent. Diesel tractor fuel that cost seventeen cents a gallon in 1972 cost forty-three cents a gallon in 1977. One expensive 1972 tractor costing $16.000, unchanged in design except for a new door latch and a different seat, sold in its 1977 version for $32.000. a 100 percent increase in five years. During that same period farmers’ prices have traveled in the opposite direction. In 1949 one Kansas farmer sold his wheat at $1.90 a bushel. In 1977 a bushel of wheat sold for $1.64. It cost the average 1977 wheat farmer $3.55 to raise a bushel of grain. The price paid to farmers for that same bushel never rose above $2.80 and dropped as low as $2.03. Stated in simple terms, by the time Jimmy Carter became president, most of the nation’s farmers had spent several years paying cash out of their pockets for the right to spend eighteen hours a day six days a week. feeding the United States and a good portion of the rest of the world.

The only return that farmers were getting on their efforts took  monetary form in the value of the land they farmed. Since 1972 the average worth of U.S. farmland has risen between 15 and 35 percent a year, while farm income has remained basically untouched and sagging. To gain access to that wealth. farmers either had to sell their land or had to borrow on the basis of it. The first option was an anathema to most farmers. More than a business. farming was their culture. Plowing ground, raising crops, living in small towns, and going to church-this was the way they thought people ought to live, but it was an impossible proposition without their land. Taking their capital gains, moving to the suburbs for a job in a tractor plant, and becoming someone else were things they did only when there was no other choice.

As a result, most farmers mortgaged their inflated equities in order to continue farming at a loss. Total farm debt between 1960 and 1977 increased 400 percent, and more than half of that increase has occurred in the last five years. Interest payments as a percentage of farmers’ net income have risen from 20 to 40 percent in the same five years. By the time Jimmy Carter took his oath, the farmers were reaching the limits of their capacity to support this debt structure. and it had begun to totter. 

One of the ironies of the increasingly disastrous economics of farming is that the family farm has always been pointed to as one of the greatest of American institutions, clear proof of the correctness of our “system.” Although 144 of the United Nations’ 150 member nations can’t feed themselves, this network of small, family-farming businesses produces consistently bountiful portions of food at by far the lowest prices in the world. Attempts to replace family farms with corporate enterprise have, aside from accruing tax advantages, proved a failure. The secret to the system’s acclaimed success is that, unlike wage workers or a nationalized proletariat, well-equipped people who work their own land will invest all their energies in it. They go out in bad weather and don’t take holidays. Out of pride in themselves. they nurse food along. calling on the lessons learned by four and five generations.

Most of the present forces propelling farmers toward bankruptcy arose from the position of extreme disadvantage they occupy in relation to their suppliers on the one hand and their market on the other. By 1977 the nation’s 2.7 million agricultural producers were caught in a vicious “free market” sandwich. In order to farm. they had to buy supplies from a set of agricultural service and manufacturing industries that have been described by a number of economists as “shared monopolies,” an arrangement whereby a small number of companies effectively controls an industry and acts in unspoken agreement in order to mutually milk the market. Two corporations, Deere & Co. and International Harvester, sell 57 percent of all farm machinery. Four firms supply 74 percent of all agricultural chemicals. and another four sell 67 percent of all farm petroleum products. More than half of all hybrid seed sold in the United States is sold by either Dekalb or Pioneer seed companies. The huge size of these agribusiness suppliers gives them an overwhelming advantage over the farmers.

The same difficulties characterize the farmers’ attempts to pass on to others their constantly rising costs in the marketplace. Grain farmers are typical. The grain farmer’s customer and immediate link in the food chain is the commodity merchant. This merchant in turn sells the grain he purchases to an agricultural processor, who sells to a food  manufacturer, who sells to food merchants, who in turn sell to grocers, who sell to the consumer. Since 90 percent of the world’s exportable grain supply is produced in the United States, virtually all the trading of the world’s commodity merchants is centered in either the Minneapolis, Chicago, or Kansas City Boards of Trade. The bidding on the floors of those boards sets the farmers’ prices through a process so elaborate and instantaneous that few farmers a thousand miles away on their tractors can even keep steady track of it, much less participate in it. Thousands of merchants pass paper on the board. trying to buy low and sell high, but as usual. the giants dominate the pricing. Cargill Inc. and Continental Grain Company alone control 50 percent of all international grain trade. As a result. grain prices have had a long habit of reflecting the economics of commodity merchants rather than that of farmers.

The only potential weapons the farmers have for wresting control of their pricing structure is either withholding their product from the market or producing less. The first option is currently relatively useless, since only a minority of farmers have access to the necessary storage capacity for any longer than a year and even fewer have cash flows enabling them to continue without harvest income sufficient for paying the prolonged storage charges involved in waiting the Board of Trade out.

Producing less, the second option, is the source of farming’s biggest dilemma. Farming is one of the few occupations in which the success of the entire membership is a collective disaster. When things are going well in banking, each banker prospers. If all the nation’s autoworkers are working at their maximum, successfully producing cars, each of  them is obviously succeeding. However, if every farmer has a good harvest, every farmer goes broke. American agriculture is enormously productive, easily surpassing the appetites of the world’s best and most cheaply fed people. In years when weather and pests fail to cut out large chunks of the world harvest. the Board of Trade is glutted and prices hit the basement. Only shortage will bring them up again. For example. when summer hailstorms sweep across a county whose farmland is rich in soybeans. the few farmers in the neighborhood whose plants haven’t been reduced to pulp stand to make a lot of money out of the community’s misfortune. Pitted against each other as they are. farmers have a history of acting as separate individuals. and cooperative efforts to hold down production have traditionally failed miserably.

For fear of being among those whose harvest is destroyed by hail, most farmers prefer to plant as much as possible and are often swamped in the resulting glut. When evaluated according to its precision and reliability as a means of planning both our own arid the world’s food supply, the farming end of the food chain closely resembles the early World War I fighter plane, whose pilot randomly fired his machine gun through the path of his own spinning propeller, hoping that he wouldn’t hit a blade, disable the engine, and fall 4.000 feet straight down, without a parachute.

Since World War I. military aviation has developed to the point where it has weaponry that can be aimed dead center on a target traveling twice the speed of sound and invisible to the pilot’s eye. The only thing farm production planning has added during that same sixty-year period is the parachute. Ever since the great farm depression of 1924 culminated in the stock market crash of 1929. the federal government has played the role of breaking agriculture’s fall. Franklin Roosevelt’s administration. in its working analysis of the causes of depression, gave agricultural failure a key role. The precipitating problem. it was argued, was that extremely low agricultural prices and income were out of sync with the rate of reward in the rest of the economy. The resulting massive farm failure was eventually catastrophic to the entire nation. Attempting to determine a level of subsidy that would bring rural and urban economies back into balance. Roosevelt’s Agricultural Adjustment Administration eventually struck on the years 1910-14 as a model. That period of U.S. history had been characterized by a healthy balance of prosperity. Thus a mathematical formula was developed that would translate present prices into farmers’ 1914 economic power. That model was called “parity,” and all subsidies were set at a percentage of the “parity index.” Percentages of parity were used as agricultural-subsidy yardsticks until 1973, when the subsidies were phased out by Earl Butz, Richard Nixon’s secretary of agriculture.

Since then, the great bulk of government agricultural programs has relied on two thrusts: low-interest, nonrecourse USDA loans and a system of target prices set by Congress and adjusted at the discretion of the secretary of agriculture. In the first program money is lent with future crops placed as collateral. The loan is keyed to a “loan price” that theoretically sets a bottom on the various commodity markets. Whenever the market price falls below the loan rate, the farmers enrolled in the program can forfeit their crops to the USDA and their notes are fulfilled. The loan rate on wheat in 1977 was around $2.30 a bushel, $1.25 below the cost of production. The system of USDA target prices pays the enrolled farmers a direct subsidy that will make up for the difference between the market and target prices at the end of the year. In early 1977 the target price of wheat was $2.47 a bushel, $1.08 below farmers’ costs. If 1977 prices were set at 100 percent of parity, wheat would have brought farmers $5.05 a bushel.

In the past farmers had obviously gotten a lot more from Congress. but these days the political numbers are running in the opposite direction. The total percentage of the population engaged in farming has dropped steadily for the last sixty years, sinking from 80 to 3.8 percent. With the exception of a few select products, this has meant a steady reduction of political influence for most farmers. At the same time, the American consumer movement came into maturity, and politicians were quick to pit the one constituency against the other. Farm prices, it began being argued, should be kept down in order to help consumers. Richard Nixon gave de facto recognition to this new political pecking order in 1973, when he froze beef retail prices in response to a housewife boycott, knocking the bottom out of the cattle market in the process.

There are two primary ironies in the pitting of farmers against consumers. The first is that farmers are the biggest consumers of all. An enormous amount of America’s domestic industrial production is consumed by agriculture. In 1977 farmers owned millions of trucks, tractors, combines, corn pickers, and assorted implements, valued at $72.3 billion. Their family cars alone cost more than $7 billion. Every farmer is serviced by ten merchants, and every agricultural dollar makes seven more before it is finished circulating in the economy.

The second irony is that shopper’s prices bear little relationship to farmers’ income. Over the years the processing, not the production, of food has come to dominate the consumer price structure. When buying cornflakes, the consumer pays the grocer thirty-seven dollars a bushel for corn the commodity merchant bought for somewhere around $1.80 a bushel. If  cotton farmers donated their crops to the  shirtmaking industry, the cost of a ten-dollar shirt would drop only “thirty-five  cents.

Ironic or not, this political opposition between the two extreme ends of the food chain has characterized American food policy throughout the 1970s. As a presidential candidate, James Earl Carter, Jr., the  peanut farmer from Plains, Ga., pledged  himself to stand up for farmers in the conflict.

“I will,” he promised during a harvesttime  visit to the corn belt in 1976, “support prices equal to at least the cost of production. Like most of Carter’s promises, it was clear and simple. The problem with the future president’s pledge was that farmers  remembered it, even after Jimmy Carter apparently considered it ancient history. Eventually, the widening gap between Carter’s promise as a peanut farmer and his  performance as chief executive was filled  with an angry rush of men and tractors that splashed across the nation’s front pages and TV screens under the heading of “The 1977 Farm Strike.”

The 1977 farm strike was basically a reaction to both the collapsing farm economy in general and the inadequacy of Jimmy Carter’s 1977 farm bill in particular. When the bill was finally passed by Congress in August 1977, its biggest effect was that 1977 wheat-support prices were . raised to $2.90 a bushel, which was still sixty cents a bushel under the cost of production. Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland, a former farmer and Minnesota congressman, said that the bill was full of new “benefits,” but farmers, especially those in wheat, tended to disagree. If they were going to survive, they needed a lot more than Carter offered. By September, 1977 the national press was full of reports about the president’s sagging farm support. Bergland denied them.

“My own soundings vary,” he told the New York Times on September 24, “but I don’t see any farm revolt brewing at this point.”

In fact, the agriculture secretary had just received strong indications to the contrary. On September 23, the day before Bergland’s statement, he had attended a scheduled meeting with farmers in Pueblo, Colo. Three thousand wheat and milo producers showed up from as far away as Oklahoma and Kansas, and they were all angry. A number had brought their tractors along. The huge machines were parked out front with signs on them urging farmers to stop production until they received a fair price for their product. Inside the Pueblo Memorial Hall, whenever Bergland tried to defend the Carter farm policy, he was shouted down. Most of the farmers in the audience were part of what they called the ”American Agriculture Movement” (AAM). Bergland had never heard of the group before, but he would hear a lot more of it soon.

AAM had no elected officers and no formal organization to speak of, but all its members wore baseball caps that said STRIKE across the front, and they carried signs saying the same thing. One of the hand-lettered placards waved in Bergland’s face that afternoon seemed to typify the movement’s strategy.

“You’ll Remember the Farmer.” it read. “When You Don’t Have Food.” 

The American Agriculture. Movement that organized the 1977 farm strike has never really been much of an organization as such. The group has always been officerless, preferring to operate in a direct partnership with each and every farmer involved, and its strike has never had anything approaching a modern, pyramid-shaped organizational chart. The movement congealed around a simple set of demands when talk of strike first surfaced during the week before Labor Day 1977, in the town of Springfield. Colo. {population, 1,750).

Thirty years ago, Springfield, the Baca County seat, was the “Broom Corn Capital of the World,” Broom corn is the primary ingredient in the business end of a broom, and southeastern Colorado farmers once grew more of it than they did wheat. Ten years ago low-priced Mexican imports finally drove them out of the market. Many of them began farming sugar beets along with their grain. By 1977 only one sugar plant was still operating in Colorado, and it was rapidly going broke in a  domestic market swamped with South American and Caribbean imports. Most of Baca County’s farmers had now settled on trying to make a living from wheat and cattle and weren’t having much greater success. After the harvest of July 1977, it was clear to everyone around Springfield that they had the latest of many disasters on their hands.

The Baca County Farms that raised cattle had first been clobbered in 1973, when Nixon froze the price of beef. For a while afterward it seemed as if those who survived might recoup all their losses with wheat: in 1972 a great deal of the rest of the world’s grain crop was destroyed by bad weather. When the Russians eventually entered the Chicago wheat market with a handful of federal export subsidies and bought millions of bushels at $.1.65 a bushel, the market took off and climbed as high as six dollars, staying near four dollars until 1975. There was a lot of talk at the time about starvation. and the infant Ford administration urged farmers to plant “fence post to fence post.'” As the bumper 1975 crop approached harvest. Ford suddenly reversed himself in response to an AFL-CIO protest against wheat exports and the rising price of bread; he invoked a presidential embargo on the Russian grain sales. The market took a nose dive to two dollars a bushel, and Baca County lost money hand over fist. Two more bumper crops later, September 1977 they were still sinking.  One 1977 farmer had borrowed $170,000 to finance his crop, produced the best yield of either his or his father’s lifetimes, and lost $28,000. When he went back to the bank to get new financing. he saw all his neighbors there doing the same thing.

The American Agriculture Movement sprang out into the open for the first time when four of those eastern Colorado farmers, Jerry Wright. Alvin Jenkins, and Derral and Gene Schroder, met for coffee in early September. Derral Schroder, in his fifties, farms a total of 8.000 acres with his seventy- seven year-old father and his grown sons, Gene and Billy. They raise wheat, milo, and corn, as well as cattle. All summer long, the Schroders had long discussions about going out of business. While they were over coffee that morning, the idea came up that farmers just ought to stop producing. Gene Schroder was the first one to speak up and use the word they would all soon begin marching under. He said they ought to have a strike.

Strike is a word that has always had a slightly foreign ring to it for farmers, those four men were no exception. Their easy acceptance of the word strike that morning is testimony to how they all disliked the word bankruptcy even more. All four thought that striking was a good idea.  Within a few days they had arranged a meeting of forty of the county’s farmers with their banker on the ground floor of Springfield’s First National Bank.

The Schroders and Jerry and Alvin told those at the meeting that agriculture was on the bottom of the pile and being treated badly. Skilled farmers, with good water, land, crops and favored by good weather, were losing money and being driven off the land. It was time that they all stood up for themselves and stopped taken for granted. One farmer at the meeting walked out. but everyone else. including the banker, stayed all two and-half hours and eventually agreed. On September 12 a countywide meeting was called, and 600 farmers attended. Most already had their winter wheat planted, and all 600 voted unanimously to call for a strike. They set December 14. 1977, as the day their strike would commence if their demands weren’t met.

The strikers’ demands rapidly evolved into a five-point program that centered on guaranteed minimum agricultural prices set at 100 percent of parity.  The strike pledge bound the strikers to boycotting new equipment purchases and to reducing their production by 50 percent. The first leaflet calling for an “agricultural strike” was distributed the next day at the state fair in Hutchinson. Kansas, 500 miles away.

The AAM received its first public recognition in the September 15 edition of the local Pueblo. Colorado, newspaper, The Chieftan; the report was soon carried throughout the western wheat belt. The Baca County farmers announced their strike deadline and told The Chieftan that they were going to inform Agriculture Secretary Bob Bergland of it personally when he visited Pueblo on September 23. “We can’t see anything [in Carter’s farm policy].” Derral Schroder explained, “but a four-year program that guarantees farmers a loss on all major commodities. The response in farm country was immediate.

The meeting on September 23 at Pueblo Memorial Hall had originally been scheduled at the behest of Rep. Frank Evans, (Dem. – Colo.). Whatever the original intentions of the gathering, it became the embryonic strike movement’s first show of force. Three thousand farmers rallied beforehand inside a giant ring of tractors at Rocky Ford, Colorado, and paraded in a tractor-led caravan for the remaining forty-seven miles to Pueblo. Bergland’s appearance became a hearing for a long litany of grievances. The secretary of agriculture stood on Memorial Hall’s stage in his shirtsleeves while farmers in work clothes addressed him from the floor mike. The secretary wanted to seem sympathetic but was not well received. “This is an extremely complicated situation.” Bergland concluded. “and I want to talk to the president about it.”

Few farmers had expected any other response. The AAM continued to organize frantically after Bergland returned to the District of Columbia. The striking western wheat farmers parked their machinery, called other farmers, set up meetings, and traveled to them to spread the word. Meetings and rallies blossomed throughout the West.

Thus 250 farmers showed up for the first rally, held in Umbarger, Texas. Another 1,000 paraded to a meeting at the Lexington, Nebraska fairgrounds,  carrying barrels of manure labeled “Ag Profits.” Strike offices opened in Pampa, Texas, and Soper, Oklahoma, and spread across the panhandles at the rate of two a day. The strike grew even faster .in Kansas. Goodland, Kansas farmers paraded their combines through town, and Cimarron, Kansas farmers  organized to send back all the mail-order Christmas catalogues in the county with an American Agriculture Movement leaflet attached. Some 5.000 farmers from all those states and more gathered for a rally in Amarillo, Texas on October 14 and vowed to organize the whole nation before the December 14 strike deadline.

In a matter of weeks, the western wheat belt’s fervor had spread to the agriculturally devastated areas of the American Southeast. Jimmy Carter’s home turf.

The farm strike first made contact with Georgia on October 24 at the Plains High School auditorium in the president’s home town. The meeting was officially billed as an evening of cultural exchange between Plains, Georgia and Plains, Kansas. Six farmers from Plains, Kansas visited as part of a delegation of striking farmers from Kansas and Colorado; 120 Georgia farmers, most of them from the neighborhood served by the Carter peanut business, attended the meeting. The western wheat farmers received standing ovations when they blasted Jimmy Carter’s farm policy.

“They put a little ole plastic elephant in a pack of corn toasties.” Alvin Jenkins from Baca County, Colorado charged, and get more for it than you get from a year’s work. The crowd roared. “They come up with this farm bill.” Jenkins added. “and it’s just as lousy as the last one.” The crowd roared again.

The wheat farmers tried to make it clear they weren’t asking for a handout. A broke government borrowing more money to lend to broke farmers so that they can become even more broke made no sense to them. They wanted a marketplace price no lower than the parity price set by law. By law a farmer who wants to hire help can’t pay less than $2.65 an hour minimum wage; so why not institute minimum price laws to protect farmers?

The strike meeting received heavy coverage in the Georgia press, and local television stations filmed the demonstration that followed in downtown Plains. The president’s brother Billy had just announced the inaugurating of his own personal brand of beer.  A sign had been erected downtown, urging people to buy Billy Beer and support the Georgia economy; so the visiting wheat farmers held an impromptu demonstration at Billy’s sign with signs of their own saying. “No Barley. No Beer.” The Macon, Georgia television accounts of the incident reported that the president’s brother had been upset to the point of allegedly threatening some of the striking farmers before they left.

One of the Georgia farmers who watched that television coverage was Tommy Kersey of Unadilla. The western farmers’ demands had touched one of his raw nerves. Kersey, thirty-eight, farms 6,000 acres with his father and two brothers. When the Billy Beer demonstration flashed on the evening news. Tommy had just finished filling out the papers for a Small Business Administration loan. The Kerseys are diversified farmers, growing corn, cotton, soybeans, peanuts, vegetables, and some small grains. They also keep 1,000 breed cows and some 600 brood sows. In 1976 they lost more than a half-million dollars. It was their third losing year in a row, and they were luckier than many of their neighbors.

Unadilla, Georgia (population 2.000), sits along the red-dirt border of Houston and Dooley counties. Most local finances began crashing in 1973. When the Kerseys started farming that year, most of their land was almost paid off. By late 1977 they were mortgaged to the hilt again and figured that they had equity enough to finance one more losing year. Going on strike made sense to Tommy Kersey from the first time he considered doing so. The only name that he could remember from the news reports was that of visiting Kansas farmer Gene Short. Kersey spent the weekend calling Gene Shorts all  over Kansas until he found the right one and arranged for two Kansans to come and address a meeting in Unadilla. When they arrived on November 10, more than 1,700 people attended the others converged on a fairgrounds a mile outside of Statesboro, Georgia and paraded with an estimated 3,000 tractors to the Builoch County Courthouse square. Reporters on the scene noted signs saying, “Thanks to the government. farmers are an endangered species” and “The hand that feeds the world is empty.” Speakers at the accompanying rally promised to get even bigger crowds when they paraded again in Plains, the day after Thanksgiving. “If the president comes home to eat turkey,” the tanners announced. “he’s going to have to talk it, too.” The Carters decided to take their Thanksgiving at Camp David. Nevertheless, 4,000 tractors and 10,000 farmers jammed the president’s hometown on November 25. Tourist traffic was tied up for miles.

Despite his cost-of-production price promise during the election, it was clear by then that James Earl Carter, Jr., was not about to give the farmers a new farm bill. He had enough problems with the one that Congress had already passed. The key to Carter’s stated objections was the total cost. In the last year of the Ford administration, farm subsidies had run around $734 million. Under the 1977 farm bill, which the striking farmers called “inadequate,” public costs were expected to increase to $3 billion. Under the new law Congress set wheat target prices at $2.90 a bushel, sixty-five cents under the cost of production. Carter had tried to hold Congress in line at $2.65 a bushel by frequently threatening to block any program costing more than $2 billion. Apparently, a minimum-price law such as the striking farmers suggested was never considered. On October 1 the 1977 fann bill was finally signed by the president after weeks of rumors of impending veto.

Jimmy Carter gave the strike his first public sign of recognition almost two months later, when he invited four MM members from the Maryland area to the White House. The former peanut tanner evinced sympathy with their goals but made it clear that he had signed the only farm bill he intended to. No one from MM was surprised. Tommy Kersey and the others rightly assumed that the striking farmers would have to show the nation that they were dead serious before anything would happen. By now Unadilla was the Georgia state strike headquarters. The next step the Peach State had planned was the largest tractorcade in history.

The enormous parade took place on December 9, five days before the strike’s December 14 deadline. Farmers from all over Georgia gathered at  assembly points on the three major highways leading into Atlanta, the state capital. When the lead tractor from Tommy Kersey’s starting point reached Atlanta, tractors were still leaving the assembly area forty-one miles to the south. Observers estimated that a total of 17,000 tractors was clogging the highways and streets around the Georgia capital. The MM estimated the crowd at 30,000. The numbers were doubly impressive because a number of other tractorcades were forming throughout the state at the same time. Gloria Carter Spann, the president’s sister, rode a tractor in the strike’s Macon, Georgia parade but issued no public statement.  

On the next day striking farmers on tractors made their first appearance in Washington, D. C. Two twelve-block-long columns of slogan-clad tractors and trucks from Kansas, Colorado, Oklahoma, Maryland, and Virginia inched along Independence and Constitution avenues, snarling traffic for more than an hour. “We’re broke,” one banner read, “and that’s no joke.”

Fifty of the Maryland tractors remained in Washington until the morning of December 14. To signal the official commencement of the 1977 Farm Strike, they rolled down Pennsylvania Avenue and circled the White House at 12:01 A.M. That signal was followed by a flurry of activity across the nation. Long, flag-draped caravans of tractors in Texas attempted to block deliveries of food and milk. Kansas, Nebraska, and the rest of the wheat belt were full of parades. The first instance of vandalism in strike activity was reported in Blackshear,Georgia where two farmers cut the air hose on a feed truck. Back in Baca County, Colorado where it all began. the strikers paraded through Springfield. Afterward, Gene Schroder disabled his giant wheat combine on a bridge ten miles south of town, and Highway 287 into Springfield remained cut for most of the afternoon.

The passing of the strike deadline invoked no sudden halt in work or production. Striking in December against an August crop meant little with snow on the ground or winter seed planted. It was only at harvesttime that the strike’s impact could be measured. What the strike amounted to when it began in December, with 600 strike offices in forty states. was a threat. The credibility of that threat could be estimated only by the farmers’ midwinter show of force. That demonstration, even doubters had to admit, was unlike anything that agriculture had ever seen before.

Twenty-four-hour picketing of food warehouses had commenced throughout Wyoming, and 140 tractors advanced on Chillicothe, Ohio. Seven hundred of the same machines cruised highways in Champagne County, Illinois, the largest corn-producing county in the world. A statewide rally was held in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Kentucky stockyards were closed by strikers. In no uncertain terms. the farm strike served public notice that at the very least farmers were prepared to make a nuisance of themselves all winter long. When questioned on December 14. Bob Bergland expressed doubts about the effectiveness of the strike, but he endorsed its withholding action on the grounds that the price-bolstering effect was consistent with the purposes of the Carter farm policy. “I say go to it.” the secretary of agriculture remarked.

The farmers did.

Huron, South Dakota, held a three-mile tractorcade in the middle of a blizzard. Hays, Kansas, rallied 8,000 people and ten miles of tractors while Montana averaged six strike meetings a week. In Abilene, Texas, picketing farmers halted bread deliveries. In Portland, Oregon, they shut down a Cargill grain elevator for a day. In Lubbock, Texas, American Agriculture Movement members, incensed over a Lubbock Avalanche-Journal editorial accusing them of “union goon tactics,” blockaded the newspaper and delayed the morning edition four hours. As usual, Georgia had one eye on the tractor throttle and the other on Plains.

Shortly after the giant Atlanta demonstration, the striking Georgians began to talk of getting 25,000 tractors to Plains when the president came home for Christmas. Soon after the word had gotten around. the demonstration’s organizers were approached by some of Carter’s friends from Sumter County.  The president’s neighbors said that if they wouldn’t come in such numbers and kept it small, “maybe” Jimmy would address the crowd. The AAM reluctantly agreed, and plans for Plains were changed to make it a symbolic act rather than a show of force. No thought was even given to not going at all. The farmers had been trying to corner the president in his hometown for three months, and they knew that he wouldn’t stay north for Christmas. They set December 23 as the day for the action. 

On December 21, Jimmy Carter and his family arrived in Plains for the holidays. On the morning of December 23, the members of the American  Agriculture Movement arrived in Plains in exactly the manner they’d promised the president’s friends. The crowd that gathered downtown was modest by Georgia standards. Even so, it more than jammed Plains’s one-block-long main thoroughfare facing the railroad tracks. The shops there sell Jimmy Carter ashtrays. Jimmy Carter penknifes, Jimmy Carter fingernail clippers, and hairbrushes embossed with the Presidential Seal. Early in the day Jimmy Carter sent a message to Tommy Kersey and the rest of the AAM organizers that he couldn’t address their meeting for “security reasons.” If, however, the group selected twenty-five representatives, he would meet with them on December 24. By 4:00 P.M. that afternoon the size stipulated for the invited group had reduced by Carter to four, and the president wanted all four to be from Georgia. The AAM accepted the reduction but refused to limit the group to Georgians. The meeting was set for 8:00 A.M. the next day.

“As long as farmers let the consumers know they have got a problem, that is good,” Jimmy Carter told the press corps as the demonstration made its way out of town. “But if they ever turn the consumers against them.” he warned. “They will be worse off than they were before. ” Observers noted that Carter’s remark was a good deal testier than his earlier comments. None of the departing farmers stopped to buy Jimmy Carter tie tacks or postcards of brother Billy’s garage.

At the appointed time on December 24, the president greeted Harold Israel of Plains, Tommy Kersey of Unadilla, Carl Hawkins of Lake Butler, Florida, and E. E. Money of Dothan, Alabama at his front door. Jimmy Carter was dressed in a flannel shirt and jeans and was accompanied by his son Chip. He and the farmers gathered around the table in the Carter dining room for thirty-five minutes. Now that the farmers had the president cornered, they felt a little self-conscious. They refused an offer of coffee and for the first few minutes made quiet and polite country conversation. The president wanted them to know that he had met with them only because he was a farmer interested in agriculture and not because he had been pressured into the meeting. Then Carter asked if the farmers had really taken a “close” look at his farm bill. At that point, the politeness level dropped several notches. One of the  participants responded to his question by saying a glance was enough. He personally wouldn’t use it even for toilet paper.

According to the participants, the president visibly stiffened at the remark. As one later put it. “Jimmy tucked them ole teeth up. and we didn’t see ’em again for the rest of the thirty-five minutes.”

Carter then became very serious and said that the world was going bankrupt and couldn’t afford the high cost of food along with the rising costs of energy. The president went on to stress that if his farm bill was given time to work. it would turn things around before his term had ended. The farmers said that they had no time to wait. When the meeting was over, they left some of their AAM literature with the president and saw themselves out. The only promise Carter made was that he would have Bob Bergland meet with farm leaders from all fifty states in early January 1978. “I sympathize with them.” the president told waiting reporters.

Twenty-four hours later. on Christmas Day, a visitor to the Carter household noticed the AAM leaflets left by the farmers the day before. They were stuffed in the dining-room wastebasket in one large bundle.

Part One: The Farmers Strike Back

The first farm strike in the nation’s history extended into 1978 with no time to lose. Even though the striking farmers were bound by their strike pledge to grow only 50 percent of their normal production, they would have to return to their fields in four months and work the dirt if they were to grow anything at all. They would have little time to parade their tractors come April.

On Tuesday, January 3, South Dakota strikers turned back five truckloads of imported Canadian beef at the border. Early reports from Texas indicated that the town of Lubbock was completely surrounded by tractors. In Denver, Colorado, 500 strikers in 300 vehicles descended on a regional Safeway warehouse, and twenty-five police were dispatched to the scene. A farmer was arrested after he and others moved a tractor across the warehouse gate. In the ensuing scuffle several farmers were sprayed with Mace.

These local actions maintained the strike’s visibility but had little other effect. If the American Agriculture Movement was going to win any relief for farmers before planting time, it would have to be won in Washington, DC., against the stiff opposition of the first farmer to be elected president since 1801. On the face of it, the AAM was not well suited for the task.

The farmers were bona fide political amateurs, and they had little tolerance for greasing the wheels of power. When they heard the word lobby, most of them immediately thought of the movie-house foyer. To compensate for a lack of experience, the farm strike had to count on visibility and enthusiasm.

Throughout American history, the farmers have always been convinced that agriculture was democracy’s taproot in Mother Earth. In addition to that sense of historical mission, farmers now felt an immediate urgency inspired by the bankruptcy breathing down their collective necks. As far as these farmers were concerned, their strike was a crusade for survival and they had no qualms about acting in accordance with that realization.

It’s not surprising that the world of federal agricultural policy had trouble understanding the farmers. In the halls of Congress and the USDA. agricultural policymaking is a well-worn towpath watched over by several key politicians and a host of economists. For three farm policy that reduction in the number of farmers was a natural and even desirable outcome of the advance of technology and its inevitable tendency to “concentrate” the farm industry into a smaller number of larger producers. Added to this legacy was the Carter administration’s overriding concern with inflation and the federal budget. Neither higher market prices nor higher subsidies were acceptable.

The collision between these two viewpoints on agriculture was preordained. During the first four months of 1978, the conflict grew into a running political battle, which culminated in the farmers’ making a massive assault on federal legislative bastions. When the dust cleared, James Earl Carter of Plains, Georgia, had held the line on every front. Carter would claim to have marshaled a great “victory for consumers,” and the farmers took to calling the former peanut farmer the Benedict Arnold of agriculture. Furthermore, part of the credit for the president’s victory would go to another ex-farmer, Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland.

It was fitting that the strike, which had first announced itself at a 1977 meeting between Bergland and the farmers in Pueblo, Colorado, began its 1978 campaign on January 6 with a rematch in Omaha, Nebraska, the agricultural capital of the Midwest. The gathering was arranged by Nebraska Gov. J.J. Exon and was planned as a small meeting between the secretary of agriculture and selected AAM members. Exon called the meeting a “bargaining session” when he announced the arrangements. If it was. it resembled few of the back-room and closed-door powwows that “bargaining” usually evokes.

On the morning of January 6, starting from three different assembly points. mounted farmers paraded single file toward Ak Sar-Ben Coliseum, the Omaha entertainment complex where the session was to be held. One of the converging tractor columns was more than four miles long. At the coliseum itself 300 AAM members were seated in the dining room along with 250 members of the press. Five hundred farmers who couldn’t fit in the dining area listened to piped-in sound in the bleachers of the coliseum’s ice rink. Still more waited in the parking lot with the tractors. All of the proceedings, including the “bargaining session” with Bergland , were broadcast live by Nebraska Public Television.

The secretary of agriculture arrived at the coliseum after the preliminaries. The “bargaining session” itself was held in a brightly lit room apart from the crowd and was shown on video monitors in the dining area and on home sets throughout the state. Secretary Bergland sat down with selected farmers and listened to their arguments. Throughout the meeting he maintained an air of neutrality and calm and said little. In fact, Bergland had heard everything before.

So had the farmers. but both sides played their roles as if mindful that all Nebraska was watching. Around the table farmers from South Dakota, Kansas, and Nebraska told stories of their losses. They argued that they deserved a rate of return equal to those available in the rest of the economy and that they wouldn’t get it until the prices reached 100 percent of parity. “If you allow the family farm to go down the drain,” a Texas farmer warned, “the blood of this nation will be on your hands.” When Gene Schroder’s turn came, the Baca County, Colorado, farmer tried to concentrate on the question of inflation. Schroder had spoken similar words to hundreds of strike meetings in forty states since he and three others had first talked of a strike over coffee in September 1977. Agriculture, he argued. was the biggest source of real wealth in the nation. It started with nothing but dirt and seed and produced enormous quantities of mankind’s most essential asset. Even at present prices, he explained, agricultural exports were the only thing keeping the U.S. balance of trade from dropping out of sight. If, by maintaining a cheap food policy, the United States refused to generate any income out of its primary source of wealth, of course the dollar would be worthless. It was a stupid policy, he concluded, not unlike a bunch of Indians selling Manhattan for twenty-four dollars. A well-paid agriculture would stabilize the economy, not disrupt it.

Bergland listened to it all, occasionally nodding and smiling. When the time was up, he made a brief statement. In it the secretary of agriculture noted his sympathy with the farmer’s goal of 100 percent parity. “Thanks again for being so direct with me,” Bergland concluded. “I’ll be discussing this with the president on Monday morning .” With that. the “bargaining session” was officially over, and programming switched back to the main studio.

On the way back to Washington, Bergland stopped at the much friendlier convention of the Texas branch of the American Farm Bureau in Houston. The farm bureau is the nation’s largest so-called farmers’ organization and the only organization whose national officers came out in immediate and vehement public opposition to the strike. Bergland told the farm bureau that parity prices were unacceptable because of red tape and cost to the taxpayer. The secretary of agriculture made no mention of his previous promise to help the strikers achieve it and referred to the strike as “irresponsible.”

No reporters were present at the secretary of agriculture’s promised Monday discussion with the president to see how these seemingly contradictory positions were resolved, but whatever transpired there made no ripples on the surface of their farm policy.

Since December the MM had been making plans for visiting Washington. D.C., and the encounter with Bergland in Omaha only spurred the group on. By consensus of the membership, January 18, 19, and 20 were finally set as the demonstration dates. and word was flashed to the nation’s strike offices. In the meantime, the AAM worked to extend its base. After spreading throughout the western wheat belt and the devastated Southeast, the strike was now beginning to extend into the prime corn-belt land in the heart of the Midwest.

The very center of the corn belt is Bethany, in central Illinois. Central and southern Illinois are blessed with the richest farmland in the nation. The strike had just reached Bethany and surrounding Moultrie County when Bill Rowe watched the December 30 evening news and heard an announcement that the MM was planning a meeting at Taylorville Junior High School in Christian County, thirty-five miles away. Rowe was curious but, like most farmers in the area. far from desperate. Blessed with strong ground, Illinois farmers have some of the best economies in all of agriculture. Illinois alone produces 10 percent of the total world production of both corn and soybeans. Nevertheless, Bill Rowe and his wife, Carole, drove to Taylorville to find out more.

Bill, twenty-nine, and his father, Eugene, fifty-eight, farm 1,120 acres of corn and soybeans. All of the farmers in the neighborhood pride themselves on their farming skills and race to see who will get their crops in first when the cover of winter snow finally melts off the fields. Last year Bill and Eugene, thanks in no small part to their huge $50,000, four-wheel-drive Stieger tractor, were the first ones in and had all their corn planted by April 18. Their beans were down by the middle of May.

Moultrie County farmers like to get in early so that their plants will be strong enough to survive the vagaries of the Illinois summer. Last year temperatures rose to more than 100 degrees during the crucial time when most of the corn crop was pollinating, and much of the local farmers’ production suffered. Thanks to an early start, the Rowes’ corn was already pollinated and forming ears before the heat wave hit. The Rowes’ crops survived the June-to-August hail season. and Bill and Eugene were among the first to reach the elevators with their harvest. Even so, the price was too low. and Bill Rowe and his father decided to store their grain and wait for the price to rise. When Bill and his wife attended the Taylorville meeting, they had been waiting four months and the price had yet to respond. At that time, Bill had $136,000 in outstanding obligations on his crops above and beyond his land payments and his stored grain was worth barely $90.000. Despite the losses staring him in the face, he wasn’t worried about going out of business in 1978 or even 1979, but he did worry about what would happen if losses piled up.

Tom Kersey of Unadilla, Georgia, gave a speech that hit Bill Rowe’s vague worry right on the head. The next day Rowe threw in with the strike and began organizing a meeting for January 6 in nearby Sullivan, where his father lived.

Although Bill Rowe had never enrolled in USDA programs because of the mountains of paperwork involved, he understood that the government’s policies were the major ingredient in the failing economics of agriculture and he had no doubts about the lameness of the 1977 farm bill. Under this act subsidy levels were set after a number of mathematical calculations. One of them was the USDA’s estimate of farmer costs. Rowe knew from his own experience that these figures were so low as to be bogus.

The strike meeting that Bill organized in Sullivan attracted 130 farmers. Most were from the areas around Lovington, Bethany, and Dalton City; Bill’s father was practically the only one from Sullivan itself. Sullivan was known as “Charles Schuman country,” and farmers there were suspicious of talk
about strikes. Charles Schuman, a Sullivan native, was a former national president of the American Farm Bureau, and the farm bureau leadership had from the beginning attacked the AAM and its parity demands.

Unlike the AAM, the farm bureau had an orderly organizational chart shaped roughly like a pyramid. The farm bureau’s present membership size is largely a function of its Farm Services Division, which, among other things, sells cheap insurance. Out of the entire Illinois membership of 275,000, for example, only 145,000 were directly involved in agricultural production.

One of the strikers’ favorite possessions was a wallet-sized card describing their attitude regarding the farm bureau. The short tract was entitled “I Have a Problem.”

“I have two brothers,” it read . “One is a farm bureau member. The other brother died in the electric chair for murder. My mother died from insanity when I was three. My two sisters and my father sell dope. Recently I met a girl who was just released from a reformatory. She served time for smothering her illegitimate child to death.

“My problem is,” it concluded. ” if I marry the girl, shall I tell her about the brother who is a member of the farm bureau?”

Strikers liked to pull the card out of their pockets and show it to anyone who cared to read it. The implications were obvious, and the farm bureau responded in kind. The bureau’s national officers dismissed the strike as one comprising only a few young farmers who had made unsound investments and had managed their money badly. Bill Rowe resented the charge. He and his father farmed with the best in their neighborhood and still lost money. The market, Rowe was convinced, was the problem. He opened Moultrie County’s strike office in the den of his house.

As with the rest of the nation, the Illinois strikers’ attention shortly shifted to the District of Columbia. Farmers all across the country were preparing for their first pilgrimage there. Bill Rowe figured that things hadn’t gone well enough in Moultrie County for him to leave yet; so he followed the demonstrations on the evening news.

All the commentators agreed that Washington had never seen such demonstrations before.

The first people in the nation’s capital to encounter the farm strike were those who work there but live in nearby Virginia. During the rush hour on Wednesday morning, January 18, commuters on Route I-66 had slowed to a crawl behind eight giant green and yellow John Deere tractors from Georgia and Virginia. Each tractor was twice as wide and three times as tall as a car, and they were all proceeding along the interstate at ten mph. After traveling twelve miles, Virginia Police intercepted the convoy.  

State Trooper W. F. Eanes tried to flag down the tractor driven by Phillip D. Olinger from Bealton, Virginia , but Olinger drove right by, knocking Eanes down in the process. Eanes got back in his car and resumed the chase until Olinger’s tractor sideswiped and eventually disabled his car. Trooper R. J. Shaw tried the same tactics with the giant machine driven by James Loveless of Remington, Virginia. Shaw’s patrol car was eventually pushed into a ditch. The state troopers had by now been reinforced by units from the Fairfax County Police. When the tractors reached the weigh station just past the Centreville turnoff, Officer James Phillips blew the back tires of Loveless’s John Deere out with a twelve-gauge shotgun and the farmers finally pulled over and submitted to arrest. Traffic had been delayed for an hour and thirty-five minutes. Later that day in Fairfax County Court, Loveless explained that he and the others were “not trying to break any laws.”

The rest of the estimated 10,000 farmers who had come to Washington heard of the battle on Route I-66 when they gathered across from the White House at 8:00 AM. Some of the strikers shouted that they ought to go “get our people out of jail ,” but nothing much developed out of those comments. They were, however, a good  indication of the mood of the crowd. The farmers were angry about having to be where they were. Most of them considered Washington a chairborne town full of pencil pushers and windbags, and they had little idea of the actual workings of the process from which they needed help. What they knew was that if wheat farmers’ prices had gone up at the same rate as congressional salaries over the last sixty years, wheat would be selling at $6.90 a bushel instead of at $2.35. And they resented the equity.

The AAM had little detailed strategy for their legislative assault on Carter’s farm policies and hit the halls of Congress with the precision and finesse of mud being slung at the door of a barn. Once again, the strikers were counting on their visibility to pull them through.

On Wednesday the farmers marched down two lanes of Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to Capitol Hill, wearing red, blue, green, and gold baseball hats with “We Support Agricultural Strike” patches sewn on. Many farmers wore matching windbreakers. Traffic snarled all along their path, and at several points there were brief incidents of farmers shoving the police who were trying to keep them from spreading across the entire avenue. All along the route of march, enthusiastic strikers stuck “We Support Agricultural Strike” bumper stickers on light poles and parked cars. After arriving at the Hill, they visited congressional offices in flocks ranging from five to fifty, kept their hats on, and told whomever would listen that they were going broke and that they didn’t intend to stand back and let it happen.

The next morning the strikers returned through the cold rain to the Hill by way of Pennsylvania Avenue and continued articulating their case. Up there the USDA was quick to respond to their assault. Citing Agricultural Department cost studies, a staff member of the Senate Agricultural Committee told the Washington Post on January 19 that 100 percent parity might cost as much as $40 billion. “What they [the farmers] don’t understand,” the staffer complained, “is the politics of the situation. One hundred percent parity is not in the cards. The cost would be staggering, and no one knows how to go about doing it.”

The farmers disputed the figures. They didn’t want any government money; they just wanted a law which said that no agricultural commodity could be sold at less than parity. Just as the government had already said that no one could hire labor at less than $2.65 an hour At parity prices, the cost of wheat in a one-pound loaf of bread would only rise from three to five cents, which was still less than the expense of the plastic wrapper. The potatoes used in a twenty-cent bag of potato chips cost the manufacturer one-seventh of one cent; parity potato prices added another one-fourth of one cent. Why, the farmers argued, were they supposed to go out of business producing cheap food while everyone else in the food chain filled his pockets? It wasn’t fair.

The politicians to whom they addressed themselves either weren’t in or adopted a sympathetic but noncommittal position. At the last minute, both the House and Senate agricultural committees scheduled hearings for the next day.

While the majority of strikers continued to lobby on Thursday morning, a group of 1,000 went down Independence Avenue toward the offices of the Department of Agriculture. Once there, they jammed the USDA’s huge lobby and refused to leave. A smaller group of 200 went upstairs and occupied Bob Bergland’s office. They demanded a meeting with the secretary of agriculture, but his staff said that he was out of town. When the farmers finally left, it was with what the Washington Post described as a flurry of “barnyard epithets” directed at Deputy Secretary of Agriculture John C. White. If Bergland didn’t meet with them the next day, departing Alvin Jenkins of Campo, Colorado, warned.’ ‘America might learn that farmers are not the God-fearing people they’ve always been.”

On Friday, January 20, the AAM began the last day of its initial siege of Washington by walking up Pennsylvania Avenue, again behind a phalanx of farm equipment. While the farmers walked, Agriculture Secretary Bergland was addressing a hastily convened meeting of thirty-nine AAM representatives. He told them that the Carter administration would do everything it could to improve farm prices but that it would not raise subsidies or price supports.

Being political neophytes, more than a few of the strikers had expected to swamp their opposition in a forty-eight-hour rush, and by Friday they were disoriented by their considerable shortfall. While the AAM was in Washington, its only means of internal communication had been the CB radio system on the farmers’ tractors and the demonstration had eventually broken down into a series of independent guerrilla farm bands, which ran back and forth at various levels of desperation between the places they thought made a difference.

At noon on Friday, 200 such farmers descended on the USDA once again. They were carrying “Parity Not Charity” signs and refused to leave until the secretary of agriculture met with representatives of the AAM. The farmers were informed that Bergland had already done so three hours earlier. They milled around the lobby for a while, figuring out what to do next, and eventually they drifted back to the Hill, where the respective agricultural committees were holding their hearings.

Bergland testified before the Senate and said what the senators had all heard before. The House’s hearings, like the Senate’s, were packed with farmers. When Alvin Jenkins testified before the congressmen, his fellow farmers broke out in their biggest applause of the day. After blasting the 1977 farm bill, Jenkins warned that farmers back home who ignored the strike and tried to take advantage of their fellow farmers’ sacrifice in order to make a killing “might be shot out of the cabs of their tractors.”

That threat proved to be the last note struck by the farm strike in Washington that month. The farmers headed home that weekend but left behind them Washington, D.C’s first AAM office. If nothing else, after three days in the capital, the strikers had learned that they would have to come back.

Several weeks after the strikers had returned to the countryside, President Carter scheduled a meeting in Washington with representatives of all the nation’s farm organizations. Three AAM members were included. The president repeated his statement that no new farm bill would pass his desk. “Those who can survive,” he reportedly told the group, “will be better off.”

Those words sounded particularly hard and cruel coming from the mouth of someone who was a farmer himself and had promised to “support prices equal to at  least the cost of production” when he had come to the farmers as a candidate, asking for votes. The strikers’ resentment of Carter smoldered while they continued to organize in the farm belt.

The president’s point man in the countryside continued to be Bob Bergland. After the Washington demonstrations, his reception in the hinterlands became steadily less polite. On February 22 the secretary of agriculture was in Amarillo, Texas, delivering a speech in which he praised the 1977 farm bill and asked farmers to give it a chance. When Bergland left for the airport to catch a scheduled flight to Wichita, Kansas, he was greeted outside by a crowd of strikers. who let loose with a barrage of snowballs and raw eggs. Bergland was rushed by police to a waiting squad car. Tom Sand, the secretary of agriculture’s press aide, later told reporters that his boss had remained unruffled throughout the incident. “He wasn’t too upset,” Sand said. “Matter of fact, we were laughing all the way to Wichita.”

The strikers weren’t laughing at all. February was a hard month, with lots of waiting and little action. The strike’s organizers began to worry about losing support, because they hadn’t yet been able to deliver on their demands. Although the total number of strike offices had risen to 1,100, several of them had recently closed down. In late February a group of the movement’s most active organizers met in Calera, Oklahoma, to discuss the situation. They were all convinced that something dramatic was needed to keep up the momentum. The group decided that agricultural imports was the question to focus on. One farmer wanted to form a modern Boston tea party by boarding a beef ship in the Gulf and throwing meat over the side. That suggestion was dismissed in favor of having a demonstration in Texas. The Lone Star State was strong strike country, and Mexican imports was a burning question there.

The Mexican farms had a double advantage. The first was labor costing three dollars a day, instead of three dollars an hour. The second was Mexico’s public health standards. Pesticides, which are strictly controlled and in many cases banned for use inside the United States, are used in Mexico at will. At the same time, American growers, denied the stronger pesticides, must dust their crops five times as often as Mexican growers in order to maintain pest-killing efficiency, which increases production costs even more.

The spot the strikers picked to make their stand was the town of McAllen, Texas, which is connected by bridge to the Mexican state of Tamaulipas. March  1 was set by the AAM as the date when they would descend on McAllen and close the border. By the time the bulk of the farmers had shown up on Monday, February 28, several AAM representatives had negotiated a deal with McAllen’s mayor. He had agreed to allow the farmers to stop trucks without police interference for five minutes, beginning at 11:00 AM. the next day. The mayor assured them that there would be plenty of vegetable trucks for them to stop while a gaggle of reporters looked on. But when, at 11:00 A.M. on March 1, 200 striking farmers from ten states assembled on the McAllen Bridge, the only truck that appeared was loaded with bricks. The farmers told the mayor that they would come back later when there were more trucks.

When the farmers returned, the whole scene had changed. By 1 :00 PM. the American side of the bridge was lined with police and sheriff’s deputies.  More than 1,000 people gathered on both sides of the border to watch as 200 farmers walked onto the span. The first truck that approached was loaded with watermelons. The strikers stopped it and talked to the Mexican driver. He became frightened, abandoned his truck, and ran back to the Mexican side of the border with his keys.

The rest of the demonstration consisted of 200 farmers watching the police try to move the abandoned vehicle. The only wrecker that was available for unclogging the bridge weighed barely a ton and a half. It couldn’t budge the farm truck and reared up on its back wheels amidst small clouds of burning rubber. The farmers laughed and shouted insults. The cops became angrier and angrier. Finally, the police gave the order to clear the bridge. The farmers protested that they had a deal with the mayor, but that didn’t carry much weight. After a brief bullhorn warning, the police advanced with billies drawn. A sixty-two-year-old man from Kansas was knocked down by a policeman who ground his face into the asphalt with his foot. A forty-seven-year-old  grandmother from Oklahoma was soundly beaten on the face and shoulders by a huge McAllen police officer in the skirmish line until the other cops restrained him. The farmers were quickly herded into a group and taken on buses to the Hidalgo County jail. Before the afternoon was over, the total population of the facility had been doubled.

Hidalgo County officials wanted each of the farmers to post a $500 bond before release, and most refused. While they waited in jail, word of  the “McAllen Massacre” soon spread throughout the strike. Within two days a crowd of several thousand farmers complete with tractors was camped outside the county detention center. On Friday, March 3, the crowd drove a huge four-wheel-drive John Deere tractor up the steps of the jail and aimed the vehicle at the front door. They said that they would break the door in unless the 180 farmers inside were released. Later that afternoon, after agreeing to pay twenty-eight dollars in traffic citations, the arrested farmers were freed. This time the mayor agreed to let them close down the bridge again if they would only leave town soon afterward.

On Saturday, March 4, the AAM successfully closed the McAllen Bridge for an hour without any incident. The second truck that they stopped was loaded with bagged onions, fresh from Mexico. The bags were labeled “Produced and Packaged in Hereford, Texas.” Despite the absence of USDA inspection stations south of the border, all of the bags were reportedly already stamped with USDA inspection seals saying that the onions were fit for American consumption.

Word of the farmers’ stand at McAllen spread rapidly. AAM partisans called the demonstration “another Alamo,” and news of it seemed to stiffen the strikers’ resolve. By March 15, some 30,000 farmers were in Washington.

This time the AAM had come to Washington with a strategy. Two major emergency agriculture bills were circulating in the Senate Agricultural committee. The first, authored by committee Chairman Herman Talmadge (Dem.-Ga.), would authorize payments to farmers for voluntarily holding land out of production. The other, sponsored by Robert Dole (Rep.-Kansas), set up a sliding scale of production reduction and parity guarantees. Neither bill was what the farm strikers really had in mind, but most of them had decided to back Dole’s measure as a stopgap until a good parity bill could be written.

Washington, for its part, had been speculating for weeks about what the farmers were going to do to the city this time. Office-building windows along Pennsylvania Avenue were crowded with spectators as the sea of strike hats and waving signs flowed toward Congress. Two Missouri strikers had stopped at the Pauper’s Bluff Auction Barn on their way north and had bought eighty-two goats, which they turned loose along the avenue. Some of the animals walked along with the crowd, and others bolted down side streets. The Capitol police tried to chase down the scattering animals on their Honda motorbikes. When the procession reached the Capitol steps for a rally, the remaining goats were joined by more than 100 chickens, several of which ended up wandering into congressional offices before the day was over. The farmers were obviously back in town.

Bill Rowe and most of the Illinois delegation went straight to a House hearing room for a meeting with several Illinois congressmen. The farmers filled all the seats and lined up against the back wall. The major speaker was Sen. Charles Percy (Rep.-Illinois), who arrived after an hour of congressional talking and made his way through the people who jammed the aisles. The farmers were especially conscious of giving Percy a polite reception. Two days before, a Vermillion County, Illinois, farmer who had arrived in town early had stomped up to the senator’s office and had thrown a raw egg in. The Illinois delegation wanted to make it clear that the farmers did respect the dignity of the Senate, whatever they thought of Percy personally.

The senator gracefully accepted their apologies and said that he was grateful that the egg had been fresh. A few farmers laughed. Percy was “concerned about the way agriculture is going” and went on to praise the American farmer profusely. He  praised the strikers for their “great public-relations job,” even though he didn’t agree with them in every respect. After a few more words about the need to export, Percy closed his speech with an appeal that the nation return “to the days of Earl Butz, who had faith in the American farmer.” The senator was late for another meeting and left without answering any questions.

One farmer sitting near Bill Rowe spoke up as Percy scuttled out the door. “Grease job,” he drawled.

Similar scenes were enacted all over the Hill on Wednesday. Washington, D.C., is a slippery place, and, like anyone unfamiliar with the vagaries of  government, the farmers had trouble getting a footing . By 6:00 P.M. the Illinois delegation had the feeling that it had learned much but accomplished relatively little. Back at their motel in Virginia. the farmers watched as the evening news spent two minutes describing their demonstration and four minutes telling the story of a dozen goats that had ended up at the district dog pound, where they were initially locked up with the dogs and fed kibble. The remainder of the eighty-two goats had apparently been absorbed into urban life.

As in the January demonstrations, the focus of Thursday’s actions shifted to the USDA. While some farmers lobbied on the Hill, 2,000 others showed up in a very angry mood at the USDA on March 16. The department, well aware that it was a target, had adopted a policy of refusing entrance to anyone who didn’t have an appointment. Several small groups of farmers had been turned away on Wednesday. Thursday’s crowd planned to rectify that condition. After the crowd had stood in the rain for a few minutes on the steps of the building, pushing closer and closer to the entrance, someone broke the glass door and the leaders of the crowd scampered into the lobby. Once they were inside, most of them had no idea what to do, and the police seemed to have things well in hand until a farmer lost control and punched a cop.

The farmer was wrestled to the ground, and shoving matches broke out between the vanguard of the crowd and the security force. Farmers farther back started to surge forward to get in on the action, and for a moment it looked as if 2,000 farmers would sweep in the doorway and crush the assorted two dozen policemen.  At this point, several of the most active strike organizers jumped to the front to restrain the crowd. Acting as intermediaries with the authorities, the organizers struck a bargain with Bergland’s staff. They promised to get the crowd back outside if a group of representatives stayed inside.

As a result, thirty-seven farmers from seventeen states went upstairs and occupied conference room 5066. Bergland himself had been whisked out of the building to an undisclosed location. Early in the afternoon, word was sent to room 5066 that Bergland was unavailable. The farmers responded that they had promised the crowd that they would stay until they met with him, and they were serious about doing just that. Twenty-two farmers stayed in room 5066 until 9:00 A.M. Friday morning. When they finally left, their names had been added to the list of the AAM delegates that Bergland would meet with that day.

The Friday meetings were all very polite, and everyone sat down in private and said all the same things that the two sides had been saying to each other in public for six months. It was a sterile exercise, and the March demonstrations closed with scattered lobbying and newspaper interviews. Planting time was near, and the farmers had little to take home to show for their efforts and little more time to spend.

Bill Rows and his father were back in Illinois by Saturday afternoon. On Sunday, Bill watched Bob Bergland’s appearance on “Meet the Press.” “Those who are most actively engaged in this current discussion,” the secretary of agriculture said in response to a question about the strike, “are . . . young people . . . in trouble because they overextended themselves . . . . They don’t represent all of agriculture.”  

Rowe wanted to throw his shoe through the television screen.

Carter and Bergland finally carried the field of legislative battle three weeks after the 20,000 strikers left town. On Monday, April 10, the Senate passed an emergency agricultural bill that combined various portions of the Dole and Talmadge offerings by a vote of forty-nine to forty-one. The bill reached the House floor on Wednesday, April 12. Two thousand farmers who had returned to the capital for the occasion were crowded into the congressional  gallery.  Some of the bill’s Republican sponsors had complained beforehand of Carter and Bergland’s “heavy-handed pressure” and “scare tactics” in  mustering opposition. Whatever the reasons, it was obvious that the farmers didn’t have anything close to the number of votes they needed. The strike, majority leader Jim Wright of Texas observed, was “a cruel charade.” The final tally was 154 for and 268 against. The defeat of the emergency bill was hailed as a “major legislative victory” for the president.

Jimmy Carter appeared before the White House press corps shortly after the vote and was clearly pleased. “This is good for our farm policy,” he said, grinning. “It is good for holding down inflation, and it is a very encouraging sign of cooperation between the Congress and the White House in dealing with the nation’s very important problems.”

Meanwhile, the farmers leaving the House gallery spontaneously began to march down Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. Several farmers were openly in tears. When the crowd reached the White House, several farmers pressed against the iron fence and shouted in order to attract the president’s attention. The Texan manning the bullhorn blared that Carter should “never call himself a farmer again.”

The defeat not only denied the strikers legislation for immediate relief, but also was a message that they should put up or shut up, one issued with confidence that the strike would not dent actual farm proauction. If the government is right, the strike will disappear as another flash in the political pan. On the other hand, if significant numbers of producers withhold 50 percent of their produce, as they pledged they would, the Board of Trade will begin to feel the pinch i n October and the November election may prove to be rough on farm-state Democrats.

In the meantime, farmers will continue to go out of business at the rate of more than 1 ,000 a month, whether they are on strike or not. The only certain long-term consequence of this winter’s battles is that most of those who still own strike hats will do everything in their power to defeat Jimmy Carter when he runs again in 1980.

Carter will not run as a farmer in that election. He will run as the president who makes hard decisions with the weight of the world on his neck.

The change of image won’t surprise many people in strike country. Folks down at the elevator and out in the “north forty” stopped calling Jimmy Carter a farmer a long time ago. Their hostility shows when they hunker down in small groups and the president’s name comes up. Most of them just call him a son of a bitch and let it go at that.

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