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FARM FINANCIAL OUTLOOK CONTINUES TO BRIGHTEN

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A profile of U.S. agriculture shows farmers are moving toward the 21st century with a financial condition much improved from a few years ago.

But the report issued Thursday by the Agriculture Department also further nailed down an old trend showing that farm numbers are still declining and that big superfarms continue to grow."The proportion of farms that are financially vulnerable today is half that of 1985," the report said. "Farmland prices have stabilized and are beginning to rise."

The number of farms in the United States "continued to decline throughout the 1980s as they have, almost unabated, since 1935," the report said. According to the 1987 census of agriculture, there were just over 2 million farms, down 7 percent from 1982, when the previous census was taken.

Small farms, although fewer in number, increased as a proportion of total farms. Mid-sized farms declined both in number and their share of the total.

"The number of large farms continued to increase," the report said. "This trend shows little prospect of reversing in the near future."

The analysis by the USDA's Economic Research Service was based on an annual report to Congress on the status of family farms.

"Virtually all farms in the United States are family-owned businesses," the report said. "Fewer than 3 percent of all farms are organized as corporations, most of which are family held."

Only 0.3 percent are corporations owned and operated by people other than a family. Single families own 87 percent of all farms, and multifamily partnerships operate the remainder.

"Because almost all farms are owned and operated by one or more families, we did not define family farm for this report," the agency said.

Thomas A. Carlin, one of the editors, said "a snapshot of the farm sector" shows that most U.S. farms are small, non-commercial and usually family-owned and operated.

Non-commercial units were defined as those having gross farm sales of less than $40,000 a year.

"Small, non-commercial farms produce a minor share of total U.S. food and fiber," Carlin said in the report's overview. "They are typically located near more densely settle urban areas where non-farm employment opportunities abound."

The small farms often operate at a loss.