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YOUNG FARMERS FINDING A TOUGH ROW TO HOE

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Ray Chisum defied conventional wisdom when he bought a used tractor and began raising cotton and grain on his own land.

None of his peers stuck around after high school to tackle the farm-and-ranch activity that sustains this tiny West Texas town. Chisum, 28, speculates he's the youngest farmer in Kent County.Chisum is bucking a national trend that disturbs many in the agriculture community - the continuing aging of the American farmer.

"Getting started without family and friends would be next to impossible," said Chisum, who took over some of his grandfather's fields and still shares equipment with his father.

"Finances - wisdom, counts for a whole lot," he said. "If it hadn't been for my granddad and dad, well, I probably wouldn't even tried."

Figures from the U.S. Census Bureau put the average age of the American farmer at 53.3 years in 1992. Ten years earlier, it was 50.5.

And in 1880, the average farmer was 39.5 years old.

The trend disturbs those who see young rural people rejecting an occupation they consider too expensive and risky.

"It's a huge concern," said Nancy Thompson, staff attorney for the Center for Rural Affairs in Walthill, Neb. "It may be one of the most crucial issues facing agriculture."

There are many roadblocks facing prospective young farmers.

County agriculture agents and others say new farmers face start-up costs as high as $500,000 for land and equipment.

In addition, agriculture experts say, beginners can't secure much affordable credit, commodity prices are uncertain and government regulations have mounted.

"It's very difficult to get into farming or ranching and make any money off it anymore," said Robert Kennedy, deputy assistant commissioner for finance and agri-bus-iness development in Texas.

Young people "are going off to Texas Tech, Texas A&M (universities) and seeing something better in their future than working on the land," Kennedy said. "At some point in the future, you'll see the family farm disappear, I'm afraid."

But Kirk Edney, state director of agricultural education for the Texas Education Association, didn't seem alarmed.

"There will always be people who enter this industry. I certainly don't anticipate a food shortage," Edney said. "The opportunity is out there, and plenty of chances of profit, but for the average person, the opportunities are better somewhere else."

Nationally, the aging trend parallels the drop in number of farmers and farms.

Figures released last summer show the number of U.S. farms fell 1 percent in 1993, to 2.04 million.

Thompson said the lack of access to land and credit is the biggest hurdle facing young farmers. And she said the traditional pool of prospective farmers shrank as rural families reared fewer children.

"The decline in the number of farmers was not so much people leaving agriculture, but because people weren't getting into agriculture," Thompson said.

Critics of the former Farmers Home Administration accuse the federal agency of not providing sufficient help.

During the 1994 fiscal year, the FmHA gave beginning farmers $87.5 million in direct operating loans and $76.5 million in guaranteed operating loans.