Midwest Farmers' Fields, Ledgers on Firmer Ground

MOST Midwest farmers will soon start spring planting on much firmer financial ground than last year when their fields and balance sheets were still sodden in the aftermath of the Great Flood of 1993, say agricultural experts.

''We're much more upbeat than anytime in the past several months,'' says Tom Doolittle, president of the board of directors at the Lake County Farm Bureau. As the fields thaw, Mr. Doolittle will be preparing his own 1,000 acres of land in Antioch, Ill., for the corn, soybeans, alfalfa, and other crops.

The overall outlook for United States farmers is mixed, with some California growers hard hit by flooding.

For the majority of growers in the nation's central Farm Belt -- the tillers of corn and soybeans -- prices for their crops have held up surprisingly well despite record harvests last year, thanks largely to unusually high demand from overseas customers.

Indeed, the number of US farms in danger of bankruptcy should begin to shrink after briefly rising in the wake of the 1993 flood. Harvests this year are likely to be ample, but not so large as to arrest a gradual rise in crop prices, says Keith Collins, chief economist at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) in Washington.

''We had a record crop last year for cotton, rice, soybeans, and corn, and the bottom did not fall out,'' Mr. Collins says. ''Prices went down but it wasn't a disaster, and one of the reasons was that the world demand was strong.''

This is good news for consumers, who will see prices for most supermarket goods rise in line with the inflation rate. Any big price increases are likely to be short-lived and isolated to a few fruits, vegetables (lettuce, cauliflower, and broccoli), and almonds, the experts say.

But the outlook for some US farmers is less than rosy.

*Small producers of beef and pork are hard hit by large supplies overhanging the market. Prices have plunged in the past year, only firming at comparatively low levels in recent weeks.

*Severe flooding in California this winter has wiped out $507.6 million worth of fruits, nuts, vegetables, livestock, and nursery products, the California Department of Food and Agriculture estimates.

*The price of cotton has soared 40 percent since last October, a boom for last year's growers that will likely be followed by a bust as farmers around the world expand cotton acreage, say agricultural economists.

In addition, most farmers face another uncertainty: the plan by Congress to completely overhaul federal farm subsidies.

Still, the mood among corn and soybean growers -- who make up the majority of producers across the Farm Belt -- is comparatively bright, say farmers and agricultural experts.

''In general, things are better for farmers than what a lot of people expected given the record crop,'' says Dave Miller, commodity-policy specialist at the American Farm Bureau Federation.

''The price [of corn] was extremely low but it made a very rapid recovery, and it's been rising slowly but steadily. So there's no doom and gloom,'' Doolittle says. After plunging to about $1.90 per bushel after last year's record harvest, the price of corn has bounced back to about $2.45 per bushel.

The corn price will probably rise, because total demand will most likely outstrip production this year, says the USDA. In response to federal incentives, farmers will probably plant about 3 percent fewer acres in corn this year than in 1994, Miller says.

Consequently, the total corn output this year will probably amount to 8.8 billion bushels, a decline of about 12 percent from last year's 10.1 billion bushel record, says the USDA. The USDA doesn't expect the exceptionally high yields per acre in 1994 to be repeated in 1995.

The US is expected to use a total of 9.4 billion bushels of corn in the year that ends Aug. 31 1995. (On Sept. 1, 1995, it should still have on hand 1.61 billion bushels from the 1994 harvest, according to the USDA.)

A surge in demand for corn exports accounts for much of the expected high demand. Producers of corn and other main crops in much of the Southern Hemisphere reaped poor harvests in 1994. China, which exported 12 million tons of corn last year, will probably register zero net exports this year.

US traders have filled the void. They will probably export about 2 billion bushels this year, or about 15 percent more than anticipated, Miller says.

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