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Farm people not only keep getting fewer in numbers each year, they are older, include more males than females and are more likely to live in the Midwest than they once were, says a new government study.

As for their fading numbers, it's an old story that was repeated again last year when an estimated 240,000 people left the land, dropping the nation's farm population to the lowest level since before the Civil War.Officials said an average of 4,986,000 people - one out of every 49 Americans - lived on farms in 1987, representing 2 percent of the U.S. population of 243.4 million.

That compared with 5,226,000 farm residents in 1986, which was 2.2 percent of the national population of 241.1 million.

The figures were derived from an annual survey by the Census Bureau that was released jointly on Tuesday with the Agriculture Department. A preliminary report was issued on Feb. 8.

Although the 1987 farm population estimate was down by 240,000 people, the report said that represented "no statistically significant change" from 1986. The one-year decline would have had to have been at least 275,000 for it be statistically significant, the report said.

From 1981 through 1987, the farm population declined an average of 2.5 percent annually, the report said. In the previous decade, the annual decline averaged 2.9 percent.

The report said the 1920 census is regarded as the beginning of the government's official nose count of the farm population, although estimates go back much earlier.

In one table, for example, figures on the number of Americans in "farm occupations" go back to 1820, when farm people were reported at less than 2.1 million, making up about 72 percent of the U.S. work force of 2.9 million.

By 1850, there were 4.9 million farm people, representing about 64 percent of the nation's 7.7 million workers.

The farm population in 1920, when the official census data began, was nearly 32 million, or 30.2 percent of the U.S. population of 105.7 million, the report showed.

According to USDA estimates going back to 1910, however, the farm population peaked at 32.5 million people in 1916 during World War I, making up 32 percent of the population of 101.6 million.

Despite a general downward trend since World War I, the farm population has had a few short-lived surges, including one during the Great Depression when it grew to 31.2 million in 1933, comprising 24.9 percent of the U.S. population of 125.4 million that year.

Another slight bulge appeared in 1983 as thousands shifted from city living to the countryside, raising the farm population to more than 7 million from 6.88 million in 1982.

The report also found that half of the total farm population lives in the Midwest. The South has 29 percent; the West, 15 percent; and the Northeast, 6 percent. Officials said reliable state and local farm popuation figures were not available.

At midcentury, about a third of all farm people lived in the Midwest, while slightly more than half were in the South.