In Debt and Desperate, Farmer Wayne Cryts Wants to Raise Cain in Congress

updated 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/21/1986 AT 01:00 AM EST

Missouri farmer Wayne Cryts, 39, addressing a lawyers' luncheon in Osage Beach, Mo., stands at a lectern next to a judge. "This is my first opportunity to stand beside a judge," drawls the denim-clad Cryts. "In the past I always had to stand before a judge, and I like this way better."

The remark gets an appreciative roar. A few years ago Cryts ran afoul of the law and was jailed for 34 days. Now, made famous by his extralegal adventures, he is a candidate for the House of Representatives, from Missouri's largely rural Eighth District.

Cryts unwittingly took his first step toward political prominence in 1979, when he deposited his 31,000-bushel crop of soybeans in a Ristine, Mo. grain elevator, with the simple intent of storing it there until the market price rose. When the elevator company went bankrupt, creditors seized Cryts's $250,000 hill of beans. He spent the next seven months wrangling and tangling in court while his bills mounted and his beans just lay there. He was told he'd have to wait in line with all the other creditors hoping to recover some of their money when the bankrupt company's assets were sorted and sold.

So Cryts, an American Agriculture Movement activist, was supported by thousands of farmers from all over the country when he broke into the elevator and busted out his beans to store them in another elevator. When a federal bankruptcy judge impounded the beans a second time, Cryts mounted another raid. This time he sold the beans, using the $186,000 to repay debts. Although a grand jury refused to indict him for theft, he was jailed for contempt when he refused to obey a judge's order to reveal the names of the farmers who'd helped him on the second raid.

Cryts's action made him a Farm Belt hero—the mayor of Russellville, Ark., where he was detained in a federal lockup on the contempt charge, brought him the key to the city (although not the key to the jail). A high school graduate who never went to college, Cryts found himself furloughed from jail and addressing congressional hearings on the farm crisis. Missouri Republican Rep. Bill Emerson, in response to Cryts's plight, sponsored legislation requiring courts to determine ownership of stored commodities in bankrupt elevators within 120 days, instead of the years that such litigation has customarily dragged on.

Now Cryts, a Democrat, is running for Emerson's seat in Congress, and he has a ready explanation for trying to displace the man who once helped him. "If a man stopped by the side of the highway and helped me fix a flat, I would thank him, but I wouldn't let him steal my car," Cryts says. "The Republican administration is set on policies that will destroy family farming and turn the country's agriculture over to large corporations."

He drives his van (blue and gray with orange "Cryts in Congress" stickers) 1,500 miles in a weekend, chewing an unlit cigar or the edges of Styrofoam coffee cups all the way. On the stump he stresses the theme of farmers' hopelessness. "People are in debt. They've no jobs, can't pay their bills, they've got nowhere to go. With that kind of desperation, a Hitler can come along and use that energy. Solutions to these problems must be found." He also calls for trade restrictions to protect American agriculture and industry from foreign imports.

His message hits home. Observes Steve Nikes, a St. Joseph city councilman who joined a standing ovation for Cryts at an Independent Democrats breakfast, "He's a very basic, common person, who relates well to anyone. He's like an old shoe: He's simple and he makes sense."

Political observers are picking Cryts to win the August primary (he has one rival) and give him a good chance of taking the $75,000-per-year House seat in the general election. He'll have the support of the national Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, which has targeted the Eighth District as a crucial Farm Belt race, and the endorsements of the AFL-CIO and former Green Acres star Eddie Albert, who has agreed to do radio and TV spots for him.

Despite his rising political fortunes Cryts's finances remain troubled. He is under a bankruptcy-court order to pay $200,000 to the trustee for the "purloined" beans (with penalties, interest and legal fees, the debt now totals $341,000). "I wouldn't pay it if I had it," Cryts says. He doesn't have it, nor does he have the money to pay off the $1 million debt on the Puxico, Mo. farm his family has worked for six generations. Foreclosure looms, and his son, Terry, 19, has already left the land to become a construction worker in St. Louis. (Daughter Paula, 17, is a high school student.)

Cryts's family backs his campaign, and his wife, Sandy, 40, says the spotlight hasn't changed him much at all. "He just talks a lot more than he used to," she says. He doesn't get to spend much time farming these days, leaving his acreage in the care of his brother-in-law. "Farmers have always thought the answer to everything is to work harder," Cryts says. "But we'll never solve these problems out there on the farm." He has concluded that the battle must be fought in Washington. "I'm determined to work hard—there. It's too bad, you know. You have to go into politics and go to live in Washington to be able to stay on the farm and do what you love to do."

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