Talk long enough to farmers put out of business by USDA and the images aren't hard to come by. There are some common ones: the humiliating drives to Farm Service Agency offices to hear the verdict on delinquent loans; the last, lonely walk across property soon to be auctioned off; the desperate pleas and tears delivered too often to a stony-faced government official.

But of them all, this is the most potent: a tombstone being torn from the soil of a fresh grave.

The tombstone in question marked the grave of Jimmy Paxton Sr. Before his passing seven years ago, Paxton - a catfish farmer in Isola, Miss. - lost almost everything he owned to the government.

A $26,000 USDA debt lead to foreclosure on Paxton's catfish acreage in May 1992. A year later, Paxton was struck dead with a stroke.

To pay outstanding debts, USDA had already taken Paxton's land and life insurance money. His widow, Grace, hadn't even the money for a grave marker.

"I asked them if I could just have enough to get him a tombstone," she says.

Assured USDA would release the needed money, Grace Paxton had the tombstone placed. But the agency never came through and Paxton's tombstone - to the horror of Paxton's surviving kin - was repossessed.

Upon hearing this story, the obvious questions are these: how could some USDA Farm Service Agency employee not have seen the inherent cruelty in such inaction? Was there no one in the FSA chain of command who was stirred with compassion? Did the case simply fall through the cracks?

Perhaps, suggests attorney James Robertson, the crux of USDA's problems lie in the fact that such questions need be asked at all.

Robertson, a former Mississippi Supreme Court justice, and several of his law partners have taken on Grace Paxton's grievances against USDA and its agencies. Bundled together with numerous other plaintiff complaints, Robertson has carried the lot into a federal courthouse in Jackson, Miss., where a pending class-action lawsuit against the USDA has been filed.