As in a factory, life on a big farm goes by the time clock

Murray Campbell drives his pickup fast down the unpaved rural roads bordered by pecan plantations and peanut, soybean, and other farms. The dust, which spews up foglike behind his rear wheels, has long since obscured the numbers on his license plate.

He pulls into a farm he manages near this small town. In the barn, several hired farmhands work in the mid-90s heat, readying a giant corn harvester. Mr. Campbell parks, then walks to his tiny, air-conditioned office near the barn. On the wall of an adjacent room are a time clock and a rack of time cards for the farmhands, who are paid by the hour.

The owner of the farm lives and has his office in Albany, Ga., 25 miles to the north.

Time-clock farming? Absentee owners?

Most farms are still family-owned and family-run. But, especially on some of the nation's large farms, there is a trend toward increased absentee ownership. Time clocks help managers of such lands keep track of who works when.

The owner of the farm Campbell runs, Robert P. Green, formed a farm-management company last year with Englishman James Pleydell-Bouverie. Their firm, First Land Management, now manages some 80,000 acres of crop and timber/hunting land, primarily for wealthy US and some foreign investors, most of whom are absentee owners.

Ask some family farmers if absentee farming can work, and they tell you how hard it would be to keep a hired hand working late to save or improve a crop. And they may voice their fears that giant corporations could gobble up family farms and gain enough clout il13l,0,16l,5pto force food prices up.

There is a definite trend toward more absentee farming, says Kenneth Krausey, an economist with the US Department of Agriculture.

But corporations are not about to take over American farming, he adds. One kind of absentee farming is evident in the figure that up to 20 percent of the nation's corn is produced on farms managed by non-owners, according to Jan Wiseman, an official of the American Society of Farm Managers and Rural Appraisers. Some absentee owners are individuals and some are major corporations.

The incentive that Messrs. Green and Pleydell-Bouverie offer their farmhands to work hard is overtime pay. But they also try to hire people who like farm work and understand it.

Mr. Campbell, for example, could not make a living on the 200-acre farm he and his mother own, so he took a job as manager of the Green farm. Among the farmhands he supervises are an ex-farmer who went bankrupt, two sons of a sharecropper, and two sons of another farmer. All of them lacked the land and money to farm on their own. One of the hired hands under Mr. Campbell's supervision, Roger Cumbie, loves farm work. But, he says, as he repairs a corn harvester this hot afternoon, that he is glad to be free of the high debts he once faced as a farmer.

Campbell, driving along in his pickup, says: ''A farmer is a mechanic, an agronomist, a market analyst, an accountant. He has almost got to be a lawyer to understand the contracts he makes.''

He raises his hand, and slaps it lightly on his knee: ''You wear so many hats.''

On farms managed by someone other than the owner, someone else wears many of those hats.

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