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The last peanut warrior 

After 60 years, Congress wants to end the peanut program. But no government program that's lasted this long disappears overnight. And Wilbur Gamble's not making it any easier.

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Initially, though, the idea was a noble one: By maintaining minimum prices, the government would encourage farmers to grow a wide variety of crops, keeping the pantries of America well-stocked. What's more, rural America would share in some of the prosperity enjoyed by industrial America.

Even today, as he bids it a likely adieu, Sen. Zell Miller talks about the peanut program in wistful tones. "It provided economic security to some of our country's poorest areas," he said last month on the Senate floor.

If only that were true. After 60 years of the peanut program, south Georgia is still stuck in the economic doldrums. In Gamble's own backyard, Terrell County, per capita income is just over $16,000, compared to a statewide average of $27,324. One out of every five county residents takes food stamps. In 1990, almost half of the adult population lacked a high school degree.

From this evidence, you can reach one of two conclusions: Either the government needs to subsidize agriculture even more in Terrell County and counties like it, or the only difference these entitlements are making is to the farmers and quota holders who share in them.

What's more, the same measures designed to protect American peanut farmers have paradoxically harmed the health of the industry overall. Take the case of Mexican peanuts.

Marshall Lamb has printed out a chart tracking the cost of Mexican import peanuts to manufacturers. Lamb, an agricultural economist at the USDA's National Peanut Laboratory in Dawson, speaks with the quiet confidence of one who's used to explaining the byzantine world of peanut economics to outsiders.

A straight red line cuts across the center of the chart. The line signifies the $610 that quota holders right now are guaranteed per ton of peanuts. Current import duties raise the cost of Mexican peanuts to well above that red line. But thanks to the North American Free Trade Agreement, that cost diminishes each year. As each vertical bar marches across the page, the price gets lower and lower; in 2005, Mexican peanuts will cost less than $610 a ton for the first time. By 2008, those import duties will disappear altogether.

To understand just how much manufacturers crave imported peanuts, consider this: The import season begins April 1. By April 3 last year, all the available foreign peanuts had been bought, Lamb says.

The irony is that if there's one thing all sides agree on is that when it comes down to health, quality and taste, nothing beats the American peanut. All things being equal, manufacturers would prefer to buy domestic peanuts.

Heaven knows there's enough of them. Last year, Georgia and the rest of the peanut-producing states in the Southeast and West saw one of their best crops ever. The average yield per acre in Georgia was its second highest on record. Nationwide, farmers grew about 2.3 million tons of peanuts.

But it was the wrong time for a bumper crop. Exports were off by a third. Americans were eating less peanut butter and fewer candy bars. And as the current farm bill was edging toward its 2002 expiration date, there was talk once again in the nation's capital of ending the program that has been a part of the south Georgia economy for 60 years.

Terry Everett, Republican congressman from Alabama and peanut farmer, is speaking about the peanut industry in apocalyptic terms.

If we don't make some changes, he's saying, it will spell the end of the American peanut farmer. "I don't think anybody could doubt that," he says.

Wilbur Gamble, just feet away from him on the dais, shifts in his seat. He looks down, then up. He looks bored.

We are in the Albany Civic Center for the Georgia Peanut Farm Show and Conference. On the other side of the blue curtain behind Everett, farmers mill about, checking out the peanut diggers, the news about peanut diseases, the latest in peanut irrigation techniques. A few carry yardsticks, compliments of one of the distributors.

About 150 are seated before Everett, the keynote speaker, who is gently reminding farmers why he believes it's time to end the quota program.

"We had a lot of critics," Everett says of the peanut program. "NBC, ABC, CBS, every national news media that you name have for years told people how bad the quota system was. It was evil, un-American. ... I don't much care what the national media says, but the problem it presented is if you go to a congressman who doesn't have the knowledge and he doesn't grow peanuts and his constituents think he voted for something that's un-American, it's pretty difficult to convince him that he ought to vote with you."

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