WHEN the Constitution was signed, 90 percent of the United States population lived on farms. Two hundred years later, the plight of the family farm is one of the touchiest issues in agriculture.
Only 2 percent of Americans rise with the rooster now, but the agriculture community still represents one-fifth of US employment and gross domestic product, when activities such as processing, marketing, and transportation are included.
William Kirchner, a farmer in central Texas, says his father supported a wife and four children by farming 300 to 500 acres. "We didn't live, I mean to say, extravagant, but we had a good living," he recalls.
These days Mr. Kirchner farms 1,000 acres with his father-in-law. "It takes a big investment for a `maybe' return," he says. And were it not for his father-in-law's financial help, the cost of land and equipment would have prevented him from farming at all.
"If you're not a millionaire or you ain't got somebody to back you, you can't get into farming. That's about as simple as it is," Kirchner says.
The US had 5.5 million farms (including livestock and poultry operations) as recently as 1950. By 1987, when the last agriculture census was taken, just over 2 million remained. Land did not leave cultivation, but was consolidated into larger farms - 13 times bigger on average than at the beginning of the century.
Specialists in the budding field of sustainable agriculture question the trend toward larger operations.
"Let's back away from individual interest and look at the bigger picture," suggests Dennis Keeney, director of the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University (ISU). When you include quality of life and environmental stewardship issues, "how do you design the landscape?"
His answer: "You don't need the huge conglomerates to come in and take over. Smaller farms truly are a sustainable situation." More people tending the land means healthier rural communities and better care of the environment, he asserts.
That may be, but others dispute the notion that giant corporations are taking over farming. Just 12 acres in 100 are held by corporations, and 11 of those 12 acres are held by family corporations.
In family corporations, the farmer is chairman, his son vice president, his wife treasurer, and so on. "It's much easier to transfer ownership of the land and the operations to the children, and thus maintain that farm within the family," if you incorporate explains Wayne Sprick, executive director of the National Young Farmer Educational Association.
"The smaller farmer has never gone away," adds Richard Johnson, a product scientist at Deere & Co. in Moline, Ill. The average farm size is still under 500 acres.
Mr. Johnson points out that Deere at one time changed its production to turn out ever-bigger farm equipment to match the trend in farm size. But the persistence of smaller farms forced it to retool to produce tractors of all sizes. "We'd rather be back in a few models we can make lots of," he says.
The fact remains, though, that fewer people live and work on the farm than ever. Many influences - some unavoidable - are responsible. From McCormick's reaper to bovine somatotropin, labor-saving advances in technology have enabled farmers to boost worker productivity eight times since 1947 alone.
Today the US grows all the food it can eat with abundant leftovers for export. Each farm worker feeds 74 Americans and 27 foreigners. But productivity is outstripping domestic and overseas demand, says Fred Gale, an economist with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA).
"You've got to have fewer people producing the output. Otherwise, you'd have surpluses you can't get rid of," Mr. Gale says.
The result is technological Darwinism. Farmers armed with modern techniques take over the land of neighbors who didn't adapt and thus couldn't compete. "It's the challenge of the business," comments Duane Acker, the USDA's assistant secretary of science and technology.
One effect: "There's not enough opportunity for the young people who would like to get into farming," notes William Stagg, a spokesman for the national FFA association (formerly the Future Farmers of America).
"It's a shrinking need in terms of the number of farm operators," he says.
As a result, the average age of farmers had risen to 52 by 1987.
Yet "old MacDonald had a farm" has long been the case. The average age was 50.5 in 1959, according to census data.
There is plenty of interest among young people in farming, should they get the chance. Rebecca McClinton, executive director of the Texas FFA association, notes that enrollment in the state's high school "ag science" programs is the highest ever.
The government has accelerated the farm consolidation process. Steve Halloran, president of the National Farmers Organization, recalls that the federal government concluded in the 1960s that the US had too many farms. A task force appointed by the Committee for Economic Development, a group of businessmen and educators, proposed a policy to drive weaker farms out of business and to force the surviving operations to grow.
Mr. Stein later wondered if the momentum of his program could be halted, Mr. Halloran says, although the number of farms is relatively stable at the moment.
Halloran was one of a small group of farmers, food processors, and economists who gathered at ISU in September to debate whether the US needs an industrial policy for agriculture, and if so, what it should be.
Varel Bailey, who raises crops and cattle on 1,300 acres in southwest Iowa, believes such a policy exists by default, composed
of a patchwork of laws and regulations beginning with the Constitution. He suggested to the ISU conference that agriculture could be headed toward public utility status. Already, there are cases of the government regulating profits and even entrance into and exit from the business.
The results can be tragic when Washington changes the details. Halloran told of a neighbor in Nebraska who recently took his own life. The farmer had grown his operation to 5,000 acres during the time when the government's attitude was "get bigger or get out."
But at that size, there were no more efficiency measures the farmer could take. When in 1990 Congress put a limit on acreage eligible for subsidies, his neighbor was affected and left "naked to the market," Halloran says.
Experience has taught food producers and processors that they should take the lead in determining a policy for agriculture, rather than just reacting to the latest edict from Washington, Mr. Bailey says. The issues raised at the ISU conference - subsidies, free trade, diversification, productivity, technology, adding value to farm outputs - set the stage for a broader conference that ISU will host next year.