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SLUMP MAY BE OVER FOR U.S. FARMERS

After more than a decade of slump and economic decline, America's farmers appear to be on the upswing.

A General Accounting Office report issued in April says progress has been made toward the major goals of the 1985 Farm Bill and most economic indicators have turned positive. Exports have increased and commodity stores have generally moved lower.According to the report, exports rose to $34 billion last year after bottoming out at $26 billion in 1986 and this year's exports are expected to hit $38 billion.

Farm assets increased to $725 billion last year after a low of $692 billion in 1986, and net cash income increased to $58 billion last year from a low of $51 billion in 1986. Net cash income this year, however, is expected to reach only $52 billion.

Threats of corporate takeovers and increased foreign ownership of American farms, often heard during the past two decades, have not occurred to any great extent. Most of the farms in the United States are privately owned by an individual or a family - although the owner may not be actually operating the farm.

Cooperative farming ventures are increasing. Farm cooperatives had a net income of $1.4 billion in 1987, more than double the amount recorded in the preceding year and the highest amount since 1980, the U.S. Department of Agriculture says.

As American farmers face the last decade of this century, they can take pride in their gigantic industry - the nation's largest, with current assets of more than $800 billion or, roughly, the equal of about 40 percent of the total capital assets of all manufacturing corporations in the United States.

Unlike many sectors of American industry and business that import more than they export, American agriculture has had a positive balance of trade since the early 1960s.

While marketing costs continue to rise, Americans still enjoy cheap food. The average American family spends only about 10 percent of its income for food. Consumers in France and Japan spend about 16 percent of their income for food; in Korea, that figure is 31 percent.

Consumer spending on food away from home has grown by 700 percent in America since 1963, with the price of inflation accounting for about half the increase.

Individual farms have shrunk to 2.2 million in this country, but the individual farmer today feeds about 93 people - about 75 of them overseas. Before 1940, one farmer supplied food and fiber for only 11 people. Unfortunately, the farmer's share of the consumer food dollar has declined to only 25 cents.

The average farmer today uses about one-fourth the labor but nearly three times the mechanical power and about 22 times the fertilizer and chemicals as in 1935.

The great use of chemicals on American farms has become a problem farmers will have to face during the next decade and into the 21st century. Scientists, environmentalists and many farmers believe America can produce just as much food and fiber with fewer chemicals and, while they will save millions of dollars, they will be protecting groundwater supples.

About one in five private water wells in Iowa has an unsafe level of nitrates because of excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers and about one in three is contaminated with pesticides, that state's lawmakers say.

Biotechnology and biological control measures could help to change much of American agriculture in the 21st century and may reduce the amounts of chemicals needed to grow food and fiber, substituting natural fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides for man-made ones.

Consumers can expect to see new foods in the next decade, including milk with tremendously long shelf life - even carbonated milk products - and low cholesterol milk.

One area that promises big profits for farmers and an end to surpluses is the use of traditional food crops for industrial uses, such as corn for ethanol and corn starch in degradable plastics, especially garbage bags.

Researchers believe tobacco could become a lifesaver when turned into a minifactory that could produce substances useful in the fight against cancer. Scientists believe they can use tobacco to produce disease and viral-fighting proteins such as interferon and interleukin-2 or the critical protein serum albumin.

Other plants that offer potential for future industrial uses are crambe, for lubricating oil; euphorbia, for producing oil for gasoline; jojoba, for liquid wax; and meadowfoam, another source of industrial oil.

There is great promise for agriculture in the future, but there probably will always be problems farmers must solve. One big one, scientists predict, is the gradual warming of the Earth - the so-called greenhouse effect.

Is America due for more drought, less water with which to grow food? If so, the nation can learn from Utah and what it has done to trap water for irrigation. Utah, the second driest state in the nation behind Nevada, has been producing abundant harvests for decades.

American farmers are ingenious folk. No problem seems too big for them. They are becoming few in number, but they continue to be heroes.