As perhaps never before, American agriculture is being assailed by environmentalists and a host of other special interest groups on such issues as animal rights, grazing on public lands, pesticide and herbicide use, water use, chemical fertilizers, erosion, animal and plant gene manipulation, and high energy farming.

In many areas, agriculture is becoming the focus for vitriolic hate mail, law suits, injunctions, and picketing.If the farmer ever needed a friend, it is now, and if farmers ever needed to speak out in their own defense, it is now.

In Massachusetts, an animal rights initiative on the Nov. 8 ballot would set up a special commission to legislate how farmers and others can treat animals.

Should the initiative pass, farm animals would have to be anesthetized before they are dehorned, for instance. Dehorning takes only seconds and keeps cattle from injuring each other in close quarters and from being a danger to farmers and farm laborers who must manage the animals.

In many cases, hundreds of cattle at a time are shorn of their horns in a simple operation. If cattlemen were forced to put each animal to sleep or inject the animals with a pain-killing serum, considerable expense and much additional time and labor could be involved - to say nothing about the additional stress on the animals.

Other rules that farmers in Massachusetts face, if the animal initiative passes, could increase commodity prices and put many farmers out of business.

Across America, farmers are being criticized for using chemical fertilizers that some critics believe have polluted streams and underground water and for using pesticides that other critics claim have endangered rare birds.

Agricultural scientists at land grant colleges and universities or in private industry are being criticized for manipulating genes in laboratories. Some critics claim genetic monsters are or could be created that could run rampant and endanger humanity.

Farmers are being criticized for using too much energy - in the form of chemicals, gasoline and fuels, electricity and machinery - to grow food and fiber.

Wilderness groups in Utah want to tie up millions of acres in wilderness and keep everyone except non-motorized sight-seers, campers and hikers from using the land. Agriculture, the traditional user of these lands, would be kicked out or curtailed.

Some special interest groups want to greatly increase the fees farmers pay to graze their cattle and sheep on public lands, putting further financial burdens on farmers who are already beset by high production costs.

In Utah and other areas of the nation - where lawmakers are looking for additional tax revenues to pay their bills or take over from taxes that could be lost by tax initiatives - farmers' exempt status on property and certain other taxes is being looked at with new interest.

Too many people don't understand what farming is all about, don't appreciate how cheaply Americans obtain such an abundance of food in relation to the rest of the world, and don't comprehend how precariously thin is the margin of profit most farmers realize today.

The 4 to 6 percent interest that most banks pay for savings accounts is more than most farmers realize on a million dollars or more of investments in land, buildings, machinery, supplies, and animals.