Can a farmer live happily on $10,000 a year? Yes, says Harold Beaver, who adds that he does. There's no doubt you've found a farmer when you meet him. He is dressed in blue overalls, a long-sleeved gold shirt, and a red cap, which he occasionally lifts off then readjusts back on his head. His black work shoes are cracked and dirty.
He points to two wooden chairs with cane seats and invites his visitor to sit under the oak tree in front of his well-kept brick house. His 93 acres of fields stretch out behind the house.
In addition to farming (soybeans, corn, and usually 20 to 30 head of cattle), Mr. Beaver, a bachelor, drives a school bus for about $5,000 a year. His farm income is only about $5,000 to $6,000, he says. But he earns enough, he says, adding that he's happy.
Do you have what you need?
Do you find its easy for a small farmer like yourself to keep going?
Do you have any problems at all?
Well, no. Now you're gonna have ups and downs . . . it don't matter what you're doin'. Seems like I get along 'bout as good as those folks makin' (more). I just don't spend as much money as they do.
His answers are punctuated with long pauses. His visitor came prepared to hear complaints. Beaver had very few. And according to several national experts on small farming, he is fairly typical.
David Harrington of the US Department of Agriculture offers this portrait of the nation's small farmers: earning low farm income supplemented by off-farm jobs; living in an older, smaller house than most Americans - but often (as in Beaver's case) with the mortgage paid off; and happy.
''It's a very satisfying life to them,'' he says. ''Many of them in New England are quite happy to live a life somewhat like Henry David Thoreau.''
Many live alone; many live as couples. ''They live on lack of expense,'' he adds.
The largest portion of farms in the US (some 71 percent) are ''small, family farms,'' says Mr. Harrington, with gross yearly sales of less than $40,000. But they account for 32 percent of the nation's agricultural production.
It is not a life without difficulties. One challenge comes when such farmers have children to educate, Harrington says. And because they have such small farms, they can be harder hit when crops fail or prices are low, says Cecil Smith of the University of Georgia extension service.
But while some of the nation's larger farmers, who have tried to expand even more, have suffered from high interest rates during the past few years, smaller farmers couldn't afford the risk of expansion in the first place. So they were less affected by changing rates, says Robert Healy of the Conservation Foundation in Washington, D.C.
And, says Mr. Healy, ''the number of small farms has begun to increase for the first time in years,'' even as the number of medium-sized farms has been declining. Many who want to start farming can't afford big farms and turn instead to small ones, he says.
Harold Beaver has been farming all his life. His grandfather and great-grandfather farmed, and the family has been living here since 1898. Today he is the only one in the family still farming. His brother, who lives across the road (Beaver Road) in a handsome brick house, is a carpenter.
''I'll keep patchin' around as long as I'm able,'' says Beaver, walking down a dirt path toward his fields. With a freezer usually full of meat from his own slaughtering and an ample supply of garden vegetables, he eats well. And he enjoys being his own boss.
Pressed for his views, he does issue mild complaints about big government, large federal deficits, the cost of space flights, foreign imports, and local taxes. But overall, he thinks the United States is ''in pretty fair shape.'' A lifelong Democrat, he thinks one term for President Reagan is enough.
With his visitor perched on a fender of his small red tractor, Beaver plows a few rows of soybeans, his thick, bronzed hands moving the steering wheel sightly back and forth as the steel points of the plow bite into the earth between the rows of green plants.
''It's a lot of hard work and a lot of fun,'' he says later. ''Never has been too much money in it.''
''I tell you now,'' he says. ''I come up when there was no money . . . when I was a boy (during the Depression). . . . That's one reason I get along well.''
Next: life on a medium-size farm.