Better times have helped ease loan pressures on the Farmers Home Administration, but a backlog of hard-luck cases has sharply boosted foreclosure actions by the agency.

In the 1990 fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, the FmHA tallied 50,803 loan applications, down 13 percent from 58,539 in 1989, according to a year-end report.Overall, the FmHA - traditionally called the government's farm lender of last resort - had a farm loan portfolio of about $24 billion among 210,458 active borrowers. Of those, 31,925 were behind in their payments as of Sept. 30.

A year earlier, when there were 230,013 loans outstanding, 41,213 were in arrears, an 18 percent delinquency rate.

The FmHA, an agency of the Agriculture Department, makes loans to farmers and others who can't qualify at banks and other commercial lenders.

Marlyn Aycock, an agency spokesman, said the loan decline is attributable to "what's happened in the farm economy, generally" over the past few years.

According to USDA economists, cash farm income nationally in 1990 is expected to be at a record level, probably in the range of $59 billion to $63 billion, up from $55 billion in 1989.

That is the money left over in a calendar year from gross cash income after paying cash expenses, according to USDA analysts. The previous high was $58.4 billion in 1988.

But the mills grind slowly in FmHA, and thousands of farmers are still being affected by the financial crunch of the early and mid-1980s when debt loads forced thousands into restructuring loans and, for some, into foreclosure proceedings.

The number of potential foreclosures is indicated by "acceleration" letters sent to delinquent borrowers, a major step toward final closeout of an FmHA loan through foreclosure.

Another step is the number of accelerated cases referred to USDA lawyers to await formal foreclosure action by the government.

Last fiscal year, according to the report, 5,462 acceleration letters were sent out, representing 2.6 percent of all farm borrowers. In the previous year, notices went to 4,045 borrowers, or 1.8 percent.