A new activism is spreading in rural Middle America. Its most dramatic manifestation so far has occurred in Ames. On Wednesday, an estimated 14,000 rural people from as far away as Georgia and Washington rallied here. The demonstration was one of the largest such protests in recent memory.
``We're trying to show the Washington establishment that there is a big crisis,'' says a Gravity, Iowa, farmer. ``Mr. Reagan had better wake up and start passing laws for the people instead of for the corporations.''
This new activism has just begun to take hold in the past few months, observers say.
``In early January, this suddenly became a farm movement,'' says David Ostendorf, director of Prairie Fire, one of the 10 groups organizing the rally. ``I pretty much knew by noon of Jan. 2 that the thing had blown wide open. Our phones were absolutely going off the wall.''
Last fall, ``it became very apparent that a crisis was about to erupt,'' said DeVon Woodland, president of the National Farmers Organization. ``It's developed very rapidly.''
These observers can only speculate what triggered this surge -- or where it is going. Clearly, an increasing number of farmers find themselves caught in what may be the worst farm crisis since 1930. But the movement has extended beyond financially strapped farmers.
``It started as a farm movement, but I see it rapidly branching out in other sectors of society,'' says Paul Lasley, a rural sociologist with the Extension Service at Iowa State University. Participating in the Ames rally were some farm lenders, politicians, and rural businessmen like Keith O'Dell of New Market, Iowa.
``We haven't sold a grain bin in two years,'' says Mr. O'Dell, who five or six years ago was selling 40 to 45 such bins annually. ``And that's disastrous.''
Churches and unions are also taking an active role in the movement.
``It's a sign of solidarity with those who are in the deepest anguish,'' says Rueben P. Joe, the bishop of the Iowa area of the United Methodist Church. He urged his 750 or so pastors to attend the Ames rally.
Even unions (traditional foes of farmers) are playing a role. ``It's just beginning,'' says David Neil, an international representative of the United Automobile Workers (UAW) based in Waterloo, Iowa. But ``once we've broken down the barriers and stopped staring down at each other, we find we have a lot more in common than we have differences.''
The farm crisis affects organized labor, he says. Iowa's UAW membership has fallen from a peak of 80,000 in the late '70s to about 45,000 now, Mr. Neil says, and at least two-thirds of that decline is because of unemployment in farm-related industries.
The surge of activity in the Midwest is coming right before spring planting -- a traditional time of farm protest -- as many financially troubled farmers find themselves unable to get new loans to put in a new crop. Some economists estimate that 8 to 15 percent of farmers won't get the necessary credit this spring. Other observers put the figure higher.
``We're right in the middle of a political whirlwind out here -- and we don't know where it's going to go,'' says Rex Campbell, a professor of rural sociology at the University of Missouri at Columbia. It might fizzle, he says. It might be sustained. ``The key is going to be the next month.''
One purpose of the Ames rally, organizers say, is to force Congress to approve some kind of farm debt relief for the short term.
But even if Congress passes something sizable, organizers here say, the new rural movement will remain very much alive. Three years ago, ``when summer came around our organizing work pretty much fell off,'' says Mr. Ostendorf of Prairie Fire.
This year, ``I have no doubt whatsoever that it will carry on pretty intensively.'' Next fall after harvest, he expects the same or perhaps an even higher level of intensity, especially if an '85 farm bill is not yet passed. Many observers expect the fight to be a long one.
The farm groups organizing the Ames rally are hammering out a farm bill proposal, says Mr. Woodland, which would move American agriculture in the opposite direction of Reagan administration proposals.