WASHINGTON (AP) _ American hog farmers _ struggling to recover from their lowest prices in 27 years _ found a glimmer of hope in a decision by the government to purchase up to $50 million worth of pork.

But they cautioned that with hogs worth less than half of what they were a year ago, it's going to take a significant rebound to help very much.

Prices ``would have to double before people get back to where they break even,'' said Matt Heitz, a pork producer in Farley, Iowa. ``A year ago we were making a little money but not very much. Right now this is kind of a disaster.''

The government announced Monday it would buy a large amount of pork in hopes of giving prices a boost. The food will be distributed in government assistance programs.

Agriculture Secretary Dan Glickman said the purchase was ``the latest in a series of steps the Clinton administration has taken to assist pork producers in these difficult economic times.'' He noted that the administration recently announced it would include 50,000 metric tons of pork in an aid package to Russia.

For farmers like Heitz, any assistance that will bolster the industry is badly needed. Prices are at their lowest level since 1971 because of an oversupply of hogs and limited slaughterhouse capacity.

Before the crisis, Heitz said, a farmer could call several slaughterhouses to compare prices before deciding where to take his hogs. ``The way it is right now... if I call on Wednesday, they put my name on a waiting list for the following Monday,'' he said.

Besides waiting for time at the slaughterhouse, the prices are an economic disaster, Heitz said. A 250-pound hog that used to fetch about $120 is now worth about $45, he said. Heitz takes about 30 hogs to the market every two weeks.

Donna Reifschneider, president of the National Pork Producers Council, said the purchase will help farmers ``during this rocky financial period.''

But the council is still hoping for more action from the government. Reifschneider wrote President Clinton last week asking for federal action such as creating a task force that would pool federal resources for pork producers. The council also wants the administration to address the limited slaughterhouse capacity issue.

That type of action, however, may be a while in coming. Glickman said Tuesday he had not taken a position on the requests.

``I'm obviously quite concerned about pork prices,'' Glickman said. ``We're looking at every option and avenue we can.''