A backward look at Jane Fonda, Ross Perot veers left, phantom farmers, and other matters. THE FARMERS' FRIEND

(FORTUNE Magazine) – Belatedly honoring National Agriculture Day (March 20) and National Women in Agriculture Day (March 19), we turn next to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which claims to fit the description in the headline above. A funny thing is happening to USDA these days. A prominent and influential politician, based in a state with a sizable farm population, is taking out after the department and proposing to cut it down to size. The implausible person just described: Senator Richard G. Lugar, the Indiana Republican who was once famous for being Richard Nixon's favorite mayor (Indianapolis), a label that did not help in his first bid for the Senate, in 1974. Since getting into this institution in 1976, he has been a hawk in the war on government spending and regulation. He also has a reputation for being serious and brainy: The Almanac of American Politics plausibly compares him with Senator Robert A. Taft of Ohio, who was Mr. Conservative to an earlier generation. Lugar is not believed to be a martyr to lost causes, so USDA had better watch out.

It has already been cuffed around considerably by his campaign against bureaucratic bloat. Early in February, Lugar made a Senate speech incorporating this embarrassing message from an Agriculture Department official: ''You asked for the number of local USDA offices around the country. We have tried to get a straight answer to this question for as long as I have been here. Our staff still cannot give us an accurate number.'' An early theme of Lugar's campaign was the cost of running the Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service (ASCS), the outfit that doles out most of the subsidy payments. In a televised (C-SPAN) news conference in February, the Senator started out by pointing to the extraordinary number of ASCS offices in our largely urban society: The service today has 2,819 offices in the country's 3,158 counties. In many counties, the supply of beneficiaries has obviously been reduced to levels at which efficient operation is more or less impossible. Roughly one-quarter of the offices have administrative costs running above 10% of the payments made to farmers. More than 50 of the offices had costs greater than the payments. In leaning on these figures, Lugar ended up creating still another embarrassment for the department. Agriculture Secretary Edward Madigan responded to the overhead cost data by arguing that cost should not be the only criterion in deciding whether to close an office. Madigan said the number of farmers served should also be a consideration, and added that one of the sites Lugar had complained of -- an office in Bell County, Kentucky, where costs were triple the benefits paid -- was still serving 2,127 farmers. To the Secretary's evident dismay, these folks turned out to be mostly phantoms. When Lugar's office pointed out that the 1987 census of agriculture showed fewer than 100 farms remaining in Bell County, the department began modifying its figures. After a series of exchanges in which the numbers kept declining, USDA glumly admitted that the correct figure for purely corporeal farmers being served in Bell County was 57. A major reason for the department's huge budget ($61 billion) and inflated head count (Lugar says 135,000) is the prevalence of ''marketing orders'' that limit acreage and production in order to support prices. As Lugar pointed out in his February 21 news conference, somebody has to verify that the farmers are not cheating. So the department has thousands -- we have yet to learn the exact total -- of bean counters crawling over American farms. ''The measurement and verification every year is a prodigious feat,'' Lugar noted. Thus far the department has been gamely claiming that it too is interested in promoting efficiency. It is in fact beginning to close some unneeded offices. Whether its recent decision to begin by terminating an office in Indiana was wholly or only partly inspired by vindictiveness is an interesting question, possibly answerable only at the Cabinet level.