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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"If we can't get to Zell Miller, we ain't gonna do nothin'. I might as well try to get to George Bush. You can't get to [Miller]. I've tried everything I can. Last time I talked to him personally, he was asking me for a thousand dollars. Since then, I ain't heard a damn word from him."

Wilbur Gamble is talking into his cell phone, which jingles every few minutes as he steers his red pick-up around Terrell County. On some fields, vast irrigation systems stretch into the distance like elongated jungle gyms. A crane takes wing from a pond. But Gamble's eyes stay on the road, his mind on peanuts.

"I believe that Zell Miller by himself could change it in the U.S. Senate," Gamble says into the phone.

To help with the last-minute lobbying, Gamble has joined forces with Jimmy Allen, an accountant from Adel and quota holder. Allen, who either by himself or through partnerships owns around 700,000 pounds of quota, has a diplomat's way with words that Gamble lacks, or chooses not to employ. As such, it's easy to understand why Allen is the emissary for the quota holders in Washington and the designated spokesman for the group.

Of a possible lawsuit against the government, Allen says, "There are segments of the quota holders that talk in that direction. I don't think we need to do that personally. I think that's counter-productive. It's hard to hold a hammer over somebody's head and say, 'Do this for me.' What we need to do is negotiate sensibly and talk about the issues sensibly."

Don't mistake Allen's verbal finesse with a lack of commitment, though. He believes firmly that quota holders are getting the shaft.

"What the quota holder is giving up is a property right," he says. "So the question is, is he being properly compensated for his property? Basically, the answer to that is no. Ten cents a year for five years is nothing more than the rent he gets."

A quota, he explains, can be taxed 45 cents a pound when it's passed down -- a worst-case scenario, to be sure.

"So if you have a property right that you've paid 45 cents in an estate tax to inherit it, it's difficult to say, 'Here's 10 cents a year for five years.' Ten cents a year for five years is about 38 cents in present value."

Last week, Spearman, the newsletter editor, said it didn't appear the quota holders were finding much sympathy in Congress.

"The word we got is that the protesters did not get very far in Washington," said Spearman, who predicted a farm bill will pass the Senate no later than President's Day -- Feb. 18.

One of the sticking points is who will pick up the cost of grading and storing peanuts, a process that can add $50 to each ton.

And of course, the bigger question is how any of these changes will affect the American consumer. Logic would seem to dictate that if manufacturers pay less for their raw products, they'd pass at least some of those savings on to the consumer.

That's Spearman's argument, anyway. "Raw product costs will drop by a third. That will probably not convert to a full third on your process product. A Snickers bar won't go down. Peanuts is only 3 cents of that 65 cents. But a jar of peanut butter, which is 90 percent peanuts, will go down. The price will go down at least 20 to 25 percent and therefore we can grow 20 to 25 percent more because demand will go up with the lower price." (Spearman, it should be noted, also has a dog in this fight: In addition to his writing gig, he acts as a buyer, purchasing peanuts from farmers for the companies that shell the peanuts.)

Others aren't so optimistic. "The processing end of the peanut industry is an oligopoly," according to an analysis written last year by Stanley Fletcher and Nathan Smith, economists at the University of Georgia. "The effects of lower farmer prices would not likely be passed on to the retail level. If full savings were passed on, the amount would be small."

Actually, the cost of peanut butter has already been dropping. In April 1991, a 16-ounce jar of peanut butter cost $2.21; a decade later, it had dropped to $1.95, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Factor in inflation, and the price of peanut butter has gone down 32 percent in 10 years.

"This product is a bargain," Art Jaeger, associate director of the Consumer Federation of America and opponent of the peanut program, grudgingly admits.

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