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Farm sector pinched by debt, drought

Bobby Walker gulped down his glass of iced tea on a 100-degree August afternoon and wiped his brow. ''I don't ever remember it being this bad,'' said the Morgan County dairy and row crop farmer. ''And I'm not talking about the weather. This state's in the midst of financial depression on the farm.''

Georgia farmers do not hesitate to use the word ''depression'' when describing the effects of a record $5 billion in farm debt - most of which accumulated from emergency loans after severe droughts in 1977 and 1980.

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''Agriculture across the country has been stressed, but nowhere have farmers suffered more than in Georgia,'' said Steve Brannen, an agricultural economist at the University of Georgia. ''Since the debt's average interest rate is about 10 percent, it will take almost $500 million just to pay the interest. And Georgia farmers haven't been netting that much even in good years.''

Georgia boasts of a diversified agricultural economy. The state leads the nation in producing poultry (particularly pinched lately because of a heat wave) , pecans, and peanuts. And tobacco, soybeans, dairy products, and peaches are also important cash commodities.

The state generates more than $3.5 billion in gross farm income, which has created a $17 billion agribusiness industry.

In 1980, Georgia had about 60,000 farms, but the economic conditions have forced nearly 5,000 out of business in less than three years.

As a result, agribusiness has suffered significantly. For example, the state had 314 farm equipment dealers in 1980, but today only 258 are operating - a loss of 56 dealerships.

''Our farmers have suffered from the same plight as those in other states: declining exports and low commodity prices,'' said Robert Nash, president of the Georgia Farm Bureau Federation, the state's largest agricultural trade group. ''But when you add the terrible weather conditions our farmers have faced, it's amazing we haven't lost more farmers.''

To understand the seriousness of Georgia's agricultural problems, Mr. Nash said, one must realize who holds the outstanding debt.

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The Farmers Home Administration, often called the farmers' lender of last resort, has slightly more than $1 billion in operating loans outstanding in Georgia - 55 percent of all short-term farm credit, which is up from 2 percent, or $14 million, in 1976.

''The federal government has far too great a role in financing Georgia's agriculture,'' said Orson Swindle, director of the FmHA's Georgia operation. ''What has occurred in Georgia is that we have basically bailed out the private lending institutions.''

He added, ''I almost detect a sense of pride among some private lenders who have not made farm loans.''

Mr. Swindle said that roughly 60 percent of the FmHA's 9,200 Georgia borrowers are delinquent, and that foreclosures are pending in about 700 cases.

A class-action suit filed in 1981 blocked the foreclosures, however, and they have remained blocked while the cases are under appeal.

''This debt that cannot be liquidated because of the legal action is costing Farmers Home $65,000 per day in interest expense alone,'' Swindle said. ''What we have is a ludicrous situation.''

The Small Business Administration is no longer in the agricultural lending business, but Georgia got the largest piece of an emergency loan pie when President Carter called on the SBA in 1977 and 1980.

Georgia has the largest SBA farm disaster loan portfolio in the nation, with Charles Anderson, the SBA's director of Georgia's farm loans.

Most Georgia farmers considered the FmHA and SBA emergency loans a blessing, but now many of them view the loans differently.

''The money was easy to get and a lot of them took more than they needed,'' Mr. Nash said. ''Those are the ones who are having the most trouble now.''

Willie Perkins, a farmer near Winder, Ga., said the emergency loans did little to help him.

''Those loans were a big help to my creditors, because all they did from my viewpoint was transfer the debt from one place to another,'' he said. ''What difference does it make if I owe the fertilizer dealer or the government?''

This year's drought, which many consider worse than the one in 1980, has added to the farmers' woes, with damages estimated by state officials at more than $250 million.

''There's more than a good chance the state will be declared eligible for more emergency relief this year,'' said Tommy Irvin, Georgia's agriculture commissioner. ''But so many of our farmers are leveraged as far as they can go. I don't know what more loans can do for them.''

From 1970 through 1981, Georgia farmers enjoyed a rapid increase in the value of their farmland. According to the US Department of Agriculture, the state's average farmland value skyrocketed from $234 an acre to $915 an acre during that 11-year period.

But the economic pressure created by the heavy debt load has forced land prices down. This year, the average price per acre was the lowest in the Southeast, at $817 - a 3 percent decline from the $842 per acre reported last year.

''Our land is just as productive as it's always been,'' Nash said. ''But there is no demand for it. The only way to reverse the situation is to bring some profitability to agriculture.''

Since no one has found a foolproof method for accomplishing that, Georgia farmers seized the only program available - the Reagan administration's payment-in-kind plan, which will give farmers surplus commodities in exchange for idling a portion of their land.

Georgia farmers idled 1.3 million acres under the program, which was much greater than expected because the plan was actually aimed at larger grain-producing regions such as the Midwest.

''Without a doubt, our farmers reacted to the payment-in-kind program in almost desperation,'' Mr. Irvin said. ''It was the only train running, so they thought they'd better catch it.''

He added, ''I only hope it helps them arrive.''

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