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United States: Agriculture System Encourages Farm Productivity

Prague, 25 February 1997 (RFE/RL) -- J.C. Lanier, an 80-year-old private farmer in the U.S. state of Georgia, has grown cotton, peanuts, tobacco, corn and soybeans on his family farm for decades. He also has raised pigs, cows, chickens and even peacocks that would strut in the shade of his pecan orchard.

Much of the farm soil in the southern part of the United States was exhausted 150 years ago by excessive cultivation of cotton. But because Lanier owns his own land -- rather than leasing it from the state -- he has been motivated to invest money in his farm and re-invigorate its long-term productivity.

Unlike Georgia's cotton mono-culture farmers of the early 19th century, Lanier has spent much of his life raising diversified crops. As far back as 1928, he helped his father plant the oldest pecan trees in the orchard close to their house -- partly to break the wind, but also to bring in some extra income. Since then, the orchard has helped save the farm when prices for cotton were low, or when drought destroyed the corn and soybean harvests.

Lanier says he has expanded the orchard five times since then, re-investing his profits into trees that now cover 40 hectares of his land. He also bought tracts of land to increase the production of corn, soybeans and other "row crops."

After World War II, Lanier borrowed money from a local agricultural bank in the nearby town of Metter, Georgia. He invested the money in equipment to help him plant and raise row crops. With the increased productivity from that investment, he soon was able to pay back the loans.

He also has reinvested part of his profits in machines that harvest and clean his pecans. Meanwhile, his son Sidney has developed a private business that packages and markets pecans. Sidney sells them directly to consumers and also works as a private wholesaler who distributes the product to shops in other states.

Farming in the United States is often a family affair. For years, Lanier�s sons and grandchildren have helped with the autumn "hog kill." In a typical year, the men slaughter about 10 pigs while the whole family helps cut the meat and hang it in a small wooden smokehouse built by Lanier's father. The family keeps this meat for its own use. The rest of Lanier�s hogs are sold to a butcher who processes and resells the meat for a profit.

Lanier says that market information is vital to the success of U.S. farmers. He says it helps them make strategic plans about which crops to grow. Lanier�s son Sidney uses computer technology to keep track of the prices and volumes of commodity trading on the international market. Many American farmers use the computer-connected Internet to get up-to-the minute reports directly from the Chicago Commodities Exchange. The need to know about the market is making high-tech information systems indispensable.

But the technology cannot protect farmers from unexpected droughts such as the one experienced by Lanier and his neighbors in 1977. U.S. farmers take out short-term bank loans for millions of dollars each year to buy fertilizer and seed. The money must be paid back in the autumn after the harvests are brought in. But Lanier says that in 1977, he and his neighbors feared they would have to surrender their land to the bank. They had put the land up as collateral, but their harvests were too small to repay the loans.

The federal government in Washington came to their assistance by declaring that the drought had been a "natural disaster" for farmers. Through its "Small Business Administration," the government offered farmers low-interest "disaster" loans to help them through the crisis.

In this way, government subsidies have helped protect U.S. family farms so that future generations of farmers also can work on land that they own.

History teaches U.S. farmers to use crop rotation

The core of Lanier's land had been owned by his father and grandfather. The family learned a valuable lesson about crop diversification from the region�s history of cotton growing.

Rich land across the American south had been ruined in the early 19th century by decades of continuous cotton planting. The man who drafted the U.S. Constitution, Thomas Jefferson, had advised southern farmers 200 years ago not to grow cotton year after year. Even the ancient Romans had written about "crop rotation" as a way to prevent the land from being depleted.

But cotton prices were high in the early 1800s when a few aristocrats controlled vast tracts of land in the southern part of the United States. With slavery being legal in southern states until the 1860s, plantation owners also had cheap labor that could be forced to work in the cotton fields.

Many plantation owners ignored Jefferson's warnings. England�s textile mills needed more and more cotton to fuel the industrial revolution, and international market prices were high. There were big profits to be made, at least in the short term, from exporting cotton.

Today, Lanier looks at his sandy topsoil and can only imagine how much more productive his farm would be, and how much he would save on expensive fertilizers, if his land had not been worn out by the cotton mono-culture 150 years earlier.

American farms are a family affair

As with most small private farms in the United States, Lanier's entire family has shared the workload over the years. The family unit is considered vital to the fabric of U.S. agriculture. Both of Lanier's sons have grown up to be experts in agriculture.

When U.S. farm children are as young as ten years old, they can join an organization called 4-H, which brings children together to play games, meet other children (many of them from other farm families), and participate in agriculture-related projects. But 4-H crafts and projects also prepare them for the day when they will become private farmers themselves.

U.S. states are sub-divided into regional government structures called "counties." In most rural counties, the 4-H sponsors fairs in which children compete to see who has raised the best animals and crops.

Of course, the projects often become family affairs, with parents helping and teaching their children along the way. At a recent county fair in Illinois, a six-year-old boy won first prize for a bull he raised with the help of his father. The boy sold the animal the same day for $25,000. Prize-winning animals and crops are often purchased at high prices by companies that want to encourage young people to farm.

After the sale, the boy said he wasn't sad that the animal would be slaughtered for its meat. He explained that farming was a business, and that his family would use the money to raise more animals.

Another important farming organization is a group for teenagers called "Future Farmers of America." The club usually meets after school hours. Members become involved in serious projects that help them better understand how to run a successful farming business.

Even after farmers have finished university studies, the federal government provides resources to help them keep up with the latest agricultural science. Most rural counties have an agricultural advisor who offers farmers advice about their agro-businesses. The advice can range from technical questions about soil erosion and agro-chemicals to questions about bank financing for developing property.

This is part four of a four-part series on agricultural reform in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet republics.