No customers and time to talk in this farm town

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

Walking the streets of this trim little farm town, it is evident that Syracuse is on the cutting edge of what many call agriculture's biggest transition in at least 50 years. Merchants on the three-block-long Main Street of this traditionally prosperous farm center of 1,600 say business is not good.

Throughout much of the great grain belt -- stretching from Ohio to Kansas and from the Dakotas to Texas -- the mood is grim.

Farmers and residents here echo that feeling.

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Alice, at the 10-seat diner, says some days ``it don't pay to open up.'' Harold Post says business at his hardware store is ``just OK, not real good.''

Keith Janssen, the Ford dealer, has lots of time to talk. There aren't any customers.

``When the farmer has money, he spends it,'' he says. ``But these days, farmers are just putting off buying new trucks and cars. They're making do with what they've got.''

The situation at the town's three farm-implement dealers is also bleak. Acres of unsold, spanking-new tractors, cultivators, harrows, weeders, and combines representing investments in the millions of dollars are on display with no buyers. Once there were eight implement dealers in Syracuse. Now there are only three, and speculation in town has it that the days are numbered for at least two of those.

``My brother and I have raised six kids here, and our best advice to them is to get their college educations and get out of Syracuse,'' says Phillips 66 dealer Bill Van Housen. Down at the local grain elevator, Mike Antes, college-educated, part owner and operator, says the day of the small-town grain-elevator operator is done.

``We simply aren't efficient enough to compete with the big operators,'' Mr. Antes says.

Asked what he thinks the future holds, Antes squints out the window. ``I think we haven't seen the bottom yet, not by a long shot. The worst is yet to come. Little towns like this will be hard put to survive.

``Big farms, big farmers, big grain elevators, bigger equipment, bigger investment, more efficient use of land. Survival of the financial fittest. That's the wave of the future,'' he says.

Across the street at the First National Bank and Trust of Syracuse, agricultural loan officer Dale Janssen says his bank is much more cautious and selective than before. With a nervous eye on the 14 failed banks in Iowa and Nebraska this year, the Syracuse bank is saying ``no'' to farmers whose finances are less than healthy.

That move eliminates a high percentage of those who need to borrow most -- especially those who paid top prices for land during the '70s and are already in debt. These farmers have seen their collateral values drop as much as 50 percent.

``Syracuse is a microcosm of the whole problem,'' says Mr. Janssen. ``The farm town lives and dies on the farmer's income. We go as he goes. If the small farmer is going to be phased out, you can imagine where that leaves us.''

Recent moves by Secretary of Agriculture John R. Block aim to take about 20 million acres of America's marginal crop land out of production.

But whatever remedies are attempted, the game is about up for the middle-size farmer who needs more machinery and more help than he can afford, says Ron Hanson of the University of Nebraska Agriculture College in Lincoln.

He can't leave to take a town job, and his borrowing (and paying-back) ability is already stretched to its limit. ``He's too big to be a part-time or hobby farmer, and too little to compete with the big boys,'' Dr. Hanson says.

The nub of the problem is overproduction, he says. ``The fact is that our grain needs can be met by fewer farmers, working fewer acres. We simply don't need to produce as much as we do.'' 30{et

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