Farming 20 years from now: got $2 million to invest?

If present trends continue, 1 percent of the farms in the United States will control half of this country's food and fiber production by the year 2000 -- with the 50,000 largest farms producing almost two-thirds of agricultural output.

This startling picture emerges from a study just released by the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).

The report notes that the concentration of production in fewer hands will naturally be accompanied by far larger farm units. "About 57 percent of farmland is projected to be operated by farms with 2,000 or more acres in 2000," according to the USDA report. In 1974, the comparable figure was 42 percent.

The fewer, larger farms projected for 20 years from now will be substantial business operations, if the report is correct in predicting that "capital requirements will rise to about $2 million of capital assets per farm for farms with sales of more than $100,000 -- nearly double what was required in 1978."

However, these figures "are not forecasts," cautions the report, whch is entitled "US Farm Numbers, Sizes, and Related Structural Dimensions: Projections to Year 2000."

Instead, in the tradition of Dickens's "A Christmas Carol," the report's projections are intended to provide "a boundary notion of where the present trends are likely to lead in the absence of significant changes in the underlying forces," it says.

The report, in fact, anticipates significant changes -- reflecting Secretary of Agriculture Bob Bergland's determination to review the entire structure of US agriculture. This latest reports is only one of a wide variety of studies being carried out by USDA researchers in order to provide a basis for a thorough restructuring of government farm programs expected when Congress draws up the 1981 farm bill. Secretary Bergland hopes the measure will be a new departure from, rather than the rubber-stamping of, previous programs.

The report notes that past government policy has played a major role in establishing the current "trend toward greater concentration -- fewer but larger farms." It concludes that "government may find the projections of use for planning research, for projecting revenues and expenditures, and for examining long-term public policy options to influence the structure of agriculture."

The report rejects some curret, wellpublicized worries. It sees no trend toward the diappearance of the family farm. The well-managed family farm will survive, it says, although young farmers will find it harder to become established as farms grow dramatically in acreage and capital outlay requirements. It also discounts scare stories that city-based corporations and foreign interests will buy heavily into US farming.

Drawing on a number of studies, the report finds that "the amount of farmland controlled by corporations has never been significant and it is unlikely to become so in the near future. . . . Few nonfarm corporations are likely to be attracted to farming unless the profitability of farming improves greatly."

The report seeks to focus attention instead on the tendency of govenment programs to favor large farms. It states, "A recent ESCS [Economics, Statistics , and Cooperatives Service of the USDA] study reaffirms what is widely known about the programs -- that benefits are closely proportional to production volume: The larger farms, although few in numbers, have the highest production and thus receive a disproportionate share of the program benefits. . . ."

The rport leaves it to policymakers to decide whether the US government should continue to encourage ever-larger farms in fewer hands each year -- so that the 4 million farms in 1959 that dwindled to 2.9 million in 1974, could drop to 1.8 million by 2000.

Overall, the report puts on the public record the USDA view that Congress has a clear choice: Either it agrees to major farm-policy changes next year, or else it will deliberately be endorsing the continued concentration of farm ownership and production.

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