The rubber of the Republican budget cuts meets the road right here at mid-continent, where the old chicken coop and milk house of Dean Lorenz's family homestead sit amid the wheat and maize fields.
For years the midwestern farm belt has been the reliable power base of Republicans. But now that the GOP holds power in both houses for the first time in four decades, the party faces a stern test of its own leadership: In its drive to pare the nation's budget, will it also trim the subsidies and price supports that have propped up the economy of rural America for generations?
That's a particularly delicate question given the fact that Kansas is the home of the Senate Majority Leader (Bob Dole), the House Agriculture Chairman (Pat Roberts) and even the nominee to be Secretary of Agriculture (Dan Glickman).
Not only do welfare recipients, public-broadcasting enthusiasts and defense contractors have a stake in the budget debate in Washington. The lives of people like Lorenz, whose land has been in his family since the days of Chester A. Arthur, also will be shaped by the votes of the new Republican Congress.
"We're open to the idea that the budget has to be reduced," says Lorenz, 49. "But when you take these subsidies off, a lot of farmers are going to look at fertilizer costs, fuel bills and property taxes and wonder whether we can stay in this."
The farmers have already polished their appeal. "We've been talking about balancing the budget for a long time, so we are more than willing to come to the table," says Warren Parker, spokesman for the Kansas Farm Bureau in Manhattan, Kan.
They know that subsidies and price supports, which reached their peak during the rural credit crisis of the last decade, have already declined from $26 billion to about $10 billion. "We can't afford to cut more," says Donald M. Lipton of the American Farm Bureau Federation. "You squeeze more out of farm spending and you end up hitting the consumer or throwing farmers out of farming."
But that's just what the Republicans are going to have to do if they are to be true to their word.
"There's going to be further cuts, and agriculture can't avoid them," says freshman Rep. Sam Brownback of eastern Kansas, a Republican member of the House Budget Committee. He is a former secretary of agriculture in Kansas, the brother and the son of full-time farmers -- and a realist. "This is just a factor of where we are. The result will be to continue taking money away from farmers, but I see no way around it. We've mortgaged the country."
The budget crisis and the Republican ascendancy on Capitol Hill have shattered a decades-long unwritten agreement in which urban lawmakers, who worried about food stamps, teamed up with midwestern and southern legislators, who worried about price and income support programs. Many of the new Republicans are suburban in outlook and have little affinity with either the farm groups or the inner cities.
The result is that both parties to the old coalition are watching their former allies carefully.
"Everybody has to share," says Mayor Thomas M. Menino of Boston. "The cities -- the economic engines, the places where all the jobs are -- can't take the only hit. Farm subsidies have to be cut, too."
Agricultural cuts would have unpredictable ripple effects, changing the prices consumers pay for produce and reshaping the rural economy of places like this in southeastern Kansas. The Texas cattlemen no longer bring their longhorn on the Chisholm Trail to the railheads of Wichita, of course, but Cargill still crushes and refines soybeans here to make salad oil and huge grain elevators, known as the "castles on the plains," are still the major economic factors in many prairie towns.
The worry among agricultural interests is that Dole and Senate Agriculture Chairman Richard Lugar of Indiana -- both presidential aspirants -- will seek to prove their toughness by permitting reductions in commodity programs, thus insulating themselves from charges that they tried to protect home state interests while others were under assault. Indeed, Lugar, who will oversee drafting of the 1995 farm bill, has proposed reducing crop target prices by 3 percent a year for the next five years and wants to eliminate the federal program that subsidizes commodity exports.
Lorenz calls Lugar's notions "absolutely ridiculous, totally off the wall" and warns that they could be the death knell not only for many farmers but for one of the most enduring elements of the nation's self image. "The family farm depends very heavily on the support system we have," he says. "Remove those supports and the whole thing dies."
The lesson from the fields of Cheney, Kan., is clear: The nation's hinterlands are now at the heart of the nation's debates.