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NO one's sure how many people live in Manlius, Ill.

The sign outside town says 450. Alan Dale thinks its 440. Bill Doty, who owns the Manlius Oil Company, says it's closer to 400. The point is that this small farm town has had roughly 400 people for about as long as anybody can remember. Somehow, it has survived.

Mr. Dale is another survivor. I met him seven years ago at the peak of the farm crisis. Despite his farm's financial situation, he was unusually upbeat then. Now, with times slightly easier, I notice the same ready smile under his bushy moustache.

Call it spirit, attitude, or just plain grit, you find a lot of it out here. Rural America endures despite the challenges of nature and the farm economy.

To drive through Manlius is to move back in time. On the right is the local grain elevator. On the left, the local bank and Manlius Oil. It takes less than a minute to drive across town. "You know you're in small-town America when there are no stoplights," Dale says. "We've got lots of stop signs. Just no stoplights." Annual event with pork sandwiches and no speeches

This is a special Saturday in Manlius. The local grain elevator, Michlig AgriCenter, is holding its annual customer appreciation day. Locals have gathered at the sportsman's club to a sit-down dinner of pork sandwiches, coleslaw, potato salad, and baked beans. At the entrance, salesmen of seed, fertilizer, and other goods stand in line to greet old customers and prospect for new ones. There are no speeches. The place is packed.

At Dale's invitation, local hog farmer Don Steele sits down opposite me. The pork comes from nearby Wyanet, he says. "We haven't used our own [hogs] now for eight to nine years." Using certified meat avoids any liability problems.

His son, Randy, did the cooking for this lunch. Such secondary jobs are typical for farmers these days. "Around this area here you can name one right after the other who has to work off the farm," Mr. Steele says.

Ken Brummel, a new farmer, is one of them. He estimates that a fifth of his income comes from his second job. He tows a portable fanning mill to a farm and cleans everything from oats to prairie grass seed. Prairie grass is becoming a popular cover crop with county conservation offices. His father built the mill from old parts.

Dale has had to take a nonfarm job too.

After holding several positions with the Illinois Farm Bureau, he has been reelected executive vice president for one year. The job keeps him on the road, making presentations, for half of the year. A third of the Dales' income comes from the part-time work of his wife, Chris, his own Farm Bureau work, and other off-farm income. In the midst of all that, Dale still manages to farm 1,200 acres, mostly corn and soybeans.

Last year was not a particularly profitable year. Yields were excellent, but an unusually cool summer meant that the crops didn't fully mature. Farmers had to make a difficult choice: harvest early and spend money to dry the crop manually or wait and hope for a dry fall to do the trick naturally. Fall was wet. Driving through the countryside, Dale points out fields where last year's corn has still not been harvested. The intertwining of man and the land

Visitors to the rural Midwest often joke about its monotony: flat or slightly rolling land overlaid with field after field of corn, punctuated by an old barn.

Big Sur it isn't. But a farmer sees his roots here. As Dale drives, he points out his family history. Here, a field owned by an uncle. There, a farmhouse once occupied by parents. The intertwining of man and land out here would amaze a city person.

Dale's great grandparents settled here 110 years ago. Their land was divided and subdivided among descendants until 1984, when the last 145 acres still in the family name came up for sale. Dale was determined to get it but could afford only $1,400 an acre. The early morning bidding went fast, up to $1,350. In the afternoon, a new bidder pushed the price to $1,375 and Dale countered with $1,400. Miraculously, no one topped the offer. Dale figured the land was worth at least $1,725 an acre.

"It was the high point of the day," he recalls. Within an hour, his grandmother passed on. "That was the low point of the day." Dale still is moved by the coincidence. He tries to go on, but his voice cracks and he wipes his eyes.

Earlier that year, in February, Dale reached his financial low point. The farm crisis was in full swing. He had finished his term in several Farm Bureau positions. "I couldn't give the family the things I wanted," he remembers. "And it all came crashing down that month.... We cried a lot and looked very seriously if there was something else we should be doing."

Chris recalls that time too. "I was looking for things for him to do." January and February are always tough times for grain farmers, she says. "They are never quite with you. They are always off somewhere else.... If you talk to any honest farm wife, you will get the same answer. We don't want January and February to come."

The gloom passed for Dale. "I just decided that I wasn't ready to give up yet," he says. The next year turned out to be a good crop year. Land prices, which had fallen dramatically, began to stabilize. That gave farmers and their bankers some breathing room, since farmers often borrow against their land to put in their spring crop. Farm economics: why Dale works land that was once seven farms

Many people would be surprised at the sums of money that pass through a farmer's hands. A $200,000 operation is considered mid-sized in the Midwest. Here in Bureau County, for example, Dale figures that in an average year an acre of corn should yield at least 135 bushels. If he can get a price of $2.50 a bushel, that's $337.50 an acre. Spread over, say, 600 acres, that amounts to $202,500. The problem is that most of the income in the fall has already been spent in the spring, what with fertilizer, fuel,

pesticides, taxes, interest, depreciation on the machinery, and insurance. Factor in the lost opportunity of putting his money somewhere else and Dale figures he makes about $75 on an acre of land he owns. The calculations are different on land he rents.

That's pretty good for an average year. But farming has been anything but average during the past decade. The drought of 1988 did in many farmers here.

"I never recovered from that one," says Steve Cunningham, who shared machinery with Dale. "In terms of the ground we farmed, I always thought it would be him or me" who would be forced to leave farming. "I hoped it would be him."

But it was Cunningham who finally gave up farming. Last year he moved to Sterling, Ill., with his wife, who already worked there full-time as a registered nurse. In February, he found a full-time position with a petroleum supplier. He has no regrets about leaving, he says. "By the time I had made the decision to leave, that was not an issue." Dale took over Cunningham's leases and now farms that land too.

This consolidation is an ongoing trend in rural America. Dale has nine landlords. The acres he now farms represented seven separate farm operations in the mid-1970s. Critics are wrong when they say that corporations are taking over Midwestern grain farming (though livestock farming seems headed in that direction). The reality is that margins are so thin that farmers must till more and more land to make the same amount of money. Often they incorporate. But these remain family-run corporations.

"I'm kind of depressed with the economy," says Joe Michlig, who owns the Manlius elevator. From 1963 to 1993, the average price of corn has doubled to $2.24 a bushel. But he remembers buying cars in 1963 that were a fraction of today's cost. Community bolstered by loyalty but schools are shrinking

With all these economic forces in place, it's a wonder that tiny Manlius has held up so well. One reason is that the town has retained its industrial base. For years, Kraft had a food-processing plant here. When the corporation consolidated, Manlius lost the plant. But Kory Farm Equipment moved in and began making farm wagons.

Manlius Oil has also prospered. Mr. Doty sells tires and pumps gas. When the number of fuel oil customers started declining eight years ago, Doty diversified into propane.

"I gambled," he says. "Everything's a gamble." This one worked. Business increased steadily, especially last year when farmers had to run grain dryers to handle their wet crops.

Doty gives a different reason for the town's survival.

"It's a loyal community," he says. Chris Dale, for example, only buys her gas here or at one other place. She says she doesn't know how to operate a self-serve pump. At night when the shop is closed, Doty leaves out buckets of cleaner so townsfolk can wash bugs and grime off their windshields.

Manlius's future is not assured. The town lost one of its grain elevators in the 1980s. The school population is down. When Dale graduated from the local high school, there were 24 in his graduating class. When his daughter Sherri graduated last year there were only 14.

The shrinkage has affected local sports. Before he graduated, Alan's son Matt played on a football team that had merged with nearby Tampico, Ill. Since then the boys basketball team has also merged with Tampico. Sherri played on an independent girls basketball team last year, but it was merged this year.

The same fate is staring other nearby schools in the face. Dale's niece in Wyanet had only five players on her basketball team. In one game, three teammates fouled out, leaving her and one teammate to defend against the opposing five-girl team.

These signs suggest that the Manlius school will eventually have to merge with another district, Chris says. Two weeks earlier, officials from the larger Walnut, Ill., schools came to Manlius to propose a merger of high-school academic programs. But many townspeople, including Chris, disapprove of that idea for the moment.

"I guess I'm prejudiced," she says, "but I always thought those kids growing up on the farm grew up with such a better understanding of what life is. They know what work is and they're not afraid of it."

Matt, who has ridden with us all afternoon, hasn't said much. But at one point, while his parents tromp about a piece of family-owned land, he stays in the car. I ask about his plans.

"I don't think I ever realized how tough it was for dad," he says. Matt works for an asphalt company. He is married with two kids.

"My first love is farming," he says. "Her [his wife's] first love is two vacations a year and ... uh ... reassurance. And I can't give that to her with full-time farming. And I'm a little scared" at the prospect. "If dad were to go on with his vice presidency or become president [of Illinois Farm Bureau], I would be out here on my own."

That's the reality of rural America today. To the outsider, it may look settled and sleepy, maybe even old-fashioned. But the old guarantees, if there ever were any, have withered away like the old abandoned barns that still dot the rural landscape.

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