Traditions fade as `superfarm' era looms

Old cornstalks crackle as George DeMeyer walks through his field. The sun is out. The smell of wet, warm earth is unmistakable. Within the next few weeks -- in a ritual as old as civilization itself -- it will be planting time here in northern Indiana.

But this year, there is concern as farmers talk of the dramatic transformation many see lying ahead for rural America.

``I think this country is going through a big change,'' Mr. DeMeyer says. ``We went through some high-flyin' times.'' Now, low commodity prices and an uncertain farm economy are forcing adjustments.

Like most farmers, DeMeyer's mid-size farm is not in trouble. Back-to-back years of drought have crimped the operation a bit. But in normal years, the farm grosses $100,000 to $120,000, which DeMeyer supplements with income from part-time work as a millwright. His wife also works.

Yet here, in this relatively stable, conservative corner of American agriculture, changes are already taking place. DeMeyer is cutting back on herbicides, fertilizer, and machinery use through increased ridge tilling. In nearby Walkerton, Bernie Westhues sees ridge tilling and other forms of conservation tillage adopted by sons whose fathers scoffed at the idea.

In fact, across the country, conservation tillage, a fuel- and machinery-saving alternative to traditional plowing, is on the upswing and may be used on one-third of the nation's cropland this year, says Bruce Julian, field specialist at the Conservation Tillage Information Center in Fort Wayne, Ind. ``The economy is the driving force. . . . We're seeing more and more of that fine-tuning.''

``There's a lot of cost-consciousness,'' agrees Jerry Carlson, editor of LandOwner, a publication of the Professional Farmers of America. ``It's not something new. It's rather something old that they were doing in the '20s.''

Change is nothing new to American agriculture, which has been transformed in the past 50 years by technological and other forces.

Many observers predict further structural change is ahead. They talk of an emerging dual-track agriculture with more large-acreage ``superfarmers'' and more part-time farmers with off-farm jobs. Recent studies show those squeezed are mid-size operators, traditionally the backbone of rural communities.

It's a ``quiet evolution,'' says Marvin Duncan, a vice-president and economist with the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City. Some historical trends -- such as declining farm numbers and low rates of return on investment -- were interrupted by the export boom of the 1970s.

Now, that boom has gone bust and these long-term trends are becoming prominent again. ``What we're [really] doing is picking up where we were in the late '60s,'' says Ross Korves, economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation.

In the dual-track scenario, a decrease in the number of fewer full-time, mid-size farmers would have a profound effect on rural America, resulting in fewer independently owned banks, and fewer local cooperatives and other agriculturally dependent companies, says a study sponsored by the Farm Credit System.

Already the farm-machinery industry has felt the pinch, as manufacturers and their dealer networks restructure and downsize their operations.

This sense of change has been sharpened by the current stress in agriculture, which is wringing out many farmers.

``This coming year is probably the telling year in a lot of cases,'' says John Williams, president of the Chapin State Bank in Chapin, Ill.

``It's a way of life that I think is fading,'' says Mr. Westhues. ``You used to have the corner groceries. And they're gone. They couldn't compete with the giants'' in the supermarket industry. And in the long run, the same thing could happen in farming, he says.

DeMeyer doesn't think superfarmers will take over. ``There's nobody that works for cheaper than I do.'' Still, he is thinking about diversifying his operation by raising hogs. It's been 20 years since he last had hogs on his farm, he admits. ``But you know I'm interested in surviving.''

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