In US grain belt, farmers worry about Reagan's breadknife

Huge tractors roar across central Minnesota's rolling cropland. On each sweep, a tractor plants and fertilizes 12 rows of corn. It's planting time here in the US breadbasket. Every throat is thick with dust and the heavy taste of fertilizer. The temperature hits 84 degrees F., so a stiff wind feels welcome -- although it brings with it a dark cloud of topsoil from North Dakota; last year's drought hit hard there and hasn't broken yet.

From back East in Washington blows another cloud. There, legislators and lobbyists are battling over the new four-year farm bill. The Reagan administration proposes farm supports of less than $8 billion. The Senate Agriculture Committee has responded by trying to restore $6 billion in additional price-support authorizations.

The cloud of doubts about what farm programs will come from Washington this year hangs over the young farmers whose great-great-grandparents broke the virgin prairie around Litchfield to supply the first flour mills built nearby by the late 1850s.

As governments, consumer needs, and transportation systems changed, so did crops in this fertile county 60 miles west of Minneapolis. Some grain fields gave way to dairy farming in the 1880s. This change led to the founding of a cooperative that grew into today's giant Land O'Lakes Creamery. Corn became a key crop, particularly after hybrid varieties came in during the 1920s. The fortunes of beef cattle operators waxed and then waned.

Last year's corn crop here was a bumper one, yielding 90 to 110 bushels per acre on nonirrigated land. Dick Holtz, weighing out giant tank cars of liquid fertilizer for farmers hurrying back to their fields, expects an equally good crop this year. He is assistant manager of Litchfield's main grain elevator, owned by Cargill, the giant, Minneapolis-based international grain trading firm.

The Cargill elevator here loaded its first 54-car unit railroad train last September. Mr. Holtz has shipped 1.4 million bushels of corn on seven of these nonstop trains, via the Pacific coast, to supply customers in Asia. He plans to load and eighth unit train soon from his half-million-bushel capacity storage bins.

Once the Cargill elevator adds two new grain silos beside the railroad tracks , Holtz will be able to load a unit train in 10 hours, rather than the present 72. He hopes to turn this new efficiency into a better price for local farmers and so attract more business.

His business is already booming. Farmers busy planting this year's corn use their tractor-mounted CB radios to check his latest prices. With Holtz quoting elevator over their CBs without interrupting their planting.

Such tractor-bound sales decisions aren't easy ones. Farmers have stored their grain to wait for better prices. But with mortgage payments to meet and heavy bills to pay for the seed, fertilizer, fuel, and equipment needed to put this year's crop in the ground, farmers are under pressure to sell last year's crop.

Farmers here joke about the thick clouds of Dakota topsoil in the air, one remarking that "there's a lot of real estate moving today." Yet there's also deep concern about their holdings. Farmers are working flat-out to plant fields that will bring top yields. Looking across neighboring farms they've bought out themselves, they say there's no leeway for miscalculation in farming.

Following the railway west from Litchfield is a string of grain elevators: Kandiyohi Farmers Union Elevator Company, Kerkhoven Farmers Elevator Company, J. V. Pappenfuss Elevator, Benson Market Company, Waubay Farmers Elevator Company Inc. Each one seems bound to lose out to the thriving Litchfield elevator, because only it has grown large enough to fill the efficient unit trains headed west.

Like elevator operators, farmers here know the price of not achieving top efficiency. Yet they also find themselves in a self-defeating situation because , as one grain and beef farmer explains, "Just as soon as you make two blades of grass grow where one grew before, you reduce the price at a time when the price of farm products anyway is not anywhere near the price of production."

When they're squeezed between high costs and low returns, never able to escape the risks posed by uncertain weather, the last thing farmers need is the added cloud of having Washington change farm policies. But as long as all these cloud hang over their farms, these Minnesota farmers say they will take the onl y course open to them -- planting their fields as well as they know how.

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