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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In 1996, the program survived in the House of Representatives by three votes. Everett, along with Rep. Sanford Bishop and Rep. Saxby Chambliss of south Georgia, say those votes are impossible to secure now.

Last summer, the Georgia Peanut Commission sniffed the wind and decided that rather than let politicians decide, it would choose which limb to offer up for amputation. Before a House of Representatives subcommittee chaired by Everett, the Peanut Growers Association suggested it was time to end the quota. The House obliged. Its version of the bill would compensate quota holders to the tune of 10 cents a pound every year for five years. That means a 100,000-pound quota would be worth $50,000 over five years.

The bill also calls for a complex combination of loans and grants that would guarantee growers at least $350 a ton.

But those farmers who have been growing quota peanuts over the last four years would, through a complex series of loans and grants, get even more help from the government; they would be assigned a "base" -- a calculated average of their last four years' production -- and then guaranteed a selling price of $480 a ton. What's more, these producers would have six months to decide on what land to assign that base.

To Gamble, this is a double-whammy to quota holders. Bad enough that Congress is offering a paltry compensation for quotas, he says, but politicians also are effectively taking the asset of the quota holders and giving it to the farmers who have been renting it from them.

After Everett's speech, Gamble points out the absurdity. "If they passed a bill that if you rented a piece of property anywhere in America for four years, it becomes the property of the person renting it, I'll go along with it."

Just days earlier, Gamble had called a rally of quota holders across south Georgia. Almost 1,000 showed up. In addition to booing congressional aides, the quota holders agreed to pony up some cash to start a legal fund. Now, on the floor of the civic center, a quota holder approaches Gamble, and asks where he can give.

"We need all we can get," says Gamble, sounding not unlike Jerry Lewis at the MDA telethon.

If Congress wants to take quotas away, it could expect a fight.

Wilbur Gamble's first farm was 17 acres. That was more than 40 years ago. Since then, his business philosophy concerning property acquisition has been simple: Buy more.

"Some other people who farmed just like I did, my same age, didn't decide to buy. They decided to buy a boat. Only boat I ever owned in my life cost $185. Bought the paddle for $7 and a half. So my friends got a boat, but I have more land than some of 'em."

Like many quota holders in Georgia, Gamble inherited some -- in his case, 85,000 pounds. As he got older, he added to the total, mostly by purchasing land and quota together.

Today, Gamble owns 4,900 acres, spread over three counties. Just as importantly, he owns more than a million pounds of quota, although how much more he won't say. "I'll tell you how I got it. By workin' and buyin'. Probably the least I bought was less than 2,000 pounds, and the most I bought was about 180,000 pounds."

It's no surprise then, that what Congress decides to do with the quota stands to affect Gamble greatly. He doesn't deny it. But he knows that it affects the smaller quota holders more -- the retirees on fixed incomes who view their asset as a kind of 401K, who rent out their quotas for 10 or 12 cents a pound to the farmer down the road.

Gamble's former allies at the Georgia Peanut Commission say his energy is misdirected.

"They haven't focused on what's doable and what's not. They haven't looked far enough forward," says Don Koehler, executive director of the Georgia Peanut Commission. "What they've missed is the opportunity to increase their buyout payment a little bit.

"I'd wish they'd listen. Nobody's listened to the realities of Washington, D.C. The Washington, D.C., they're trying to live in is the Washington, D.C., of 20 years ago. We've got a very urban Congress [now]. I remember when a half-dozen of our representatives had rural districts."

In Washington, Bob Redding has worked as a lobbyist for the commission for 21 years. He's one of the people Gamble believes has betrayed quota holders. But Redding is confident that this bill is the best option.

"If this bill passes, we can recapture our import market for the first time in many, many years. And we have an opportunity to participate in a serious way in the export market."

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