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Archive for Wednesday, April 26, 1995

PRESSURES MOUNT

April 26, 1995

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With or without government subsidies, Douglas County farmers struggle for survival.

Slashing federal farm subsidies won't destroy agriculture in Douglas County.

But spending cuts, combined with low crop prices, high taxes and foreign competition will intensify the pressures already bearing down on the county's 820 farms.

"Farmers, as well as other entities within our society, all have to take their fair share of cuts if we're going to try to balance the federal budget," said Roger Pine, whose Pine Family Farms stretches across about 4,000 acres north of Lawrence.

Farmers just don't want to be the only ones facing cuts, Pine said.

They're not. Budget hawks in Congress have their eyes fixed on slashing farm subsidies, just as they have targeted food stamp and welfare programs that benefit the poor.

Dwane Schaake, who farms about 800 acres east of Lawrence, took advantage of federal assistance after his crops suffered flood damage in 1993. But in general, he shies away from government programs.

"It helps your cash flow, but it's also a nuisance," he said.

Of greater concern to Schaake are high taxes and the low prices he gets for his corn, beans and alfalfa.

"We're trying to operate with prices that are about 50 years behind," Schaake said.

But for years, government programs have promoted low food prices and subsidized exports, meaning farmers have been squeezed tighter and tighter.

"The American people want cheap food," said Gary Keeler, a agriculture agent for the Douglas County Extension Service in Lawrence. "We spend less than 20 percent of our income for food. A lot of countries overseas will spend 30 percent and up to 60 or 70 percent."

In general, federal farm-subsidy programs are less important to eastern Kansas farmers than they are to western Kansas farmers, Keeler said.

Douglas County farmers have greater flexibility in what they can grow because of higher rainfall than in semiarid, wheat-dominated western Kansas.

Federal programs sometimes limit that flexibility, so if spending cuts are accompanied by fewer limitations on farm practices, Douglas County farmers could benefit, Pine said.

Douglas County farmers have another advantage over their western Kansas counterparts: Many of them can find outside work to support their farms, which are in an increasingly urbanized region.

But the urban influence hasn't been entirely positive.

"We're losing acreage to farms because of more homes in the country," Keeler said.

Between 1987 and 1992 about 1,400 acres were withdrawn from farm use in Douglas County -- out of about 225,000 acres -- and 32 farms ceased operations. Meanwhile, the average farm size grew from 262 acres to 271 acres.

"You're all right if you keep increasing the size of your operation to stay steady," Schaake said. "But by golly, you can only do so much."

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