MOORHEAD (AP) -- Fifth-generation farmer Jon Evert walked away from the life he loved. He had little choice.
It was that or take out another operating loan and risk losing the family farm in an agricultural economy that held little promise.
"I needed to stop the hemorrhaging," said Evert, who farmed near Comstock for 27 years. He walked away in 1998 but kept his farm.
"My roots run pretty deep in the Red River Valley soil," Evert said. "It was difficult to lose that identity and to break that family tradition of farming, but it just got to the point where it made sense to do it."
Now Evert sees the same stress on other farmers faces. As coordinator of the Moorhead-based Rural Life Outreach, Evert counsels struggling farmers who want to stay on the farm or are trying to build a life without it.
"Most farmers have never applied for a job," Evert said. "And so often we have to convince them they can support their family doing something else."
About 3,000 farm families in northwestern Minnesota contacted the nonprofit organization for financial help and counseling last year and the number is growing, said Evert, who is also a Clay County commissioner.
"The difference I think is that in the 80s everybody thought the poor farm economy was short term," he said. "People were looking for a way to stay on the farm.
"And now the message is very different," Evert said. "Now they say, 'You've got to help us get out. We don't see any future. We don't think it's going to change.' "
Minnesota, home to 79,000 farms last year, has lost 10,000 between 1990 and 2000, the state's agricultural statistics services report.
Yet the number of large farms is steadily rising. It's the traditional, mid-sized farmers who are leaving the land in droves.
In Minnesota, 9,500 mid-sized farms folded during the decade, and 1,500 more large farms have emerged, records show.
The state's agricultural statistics services classify mid-sized farms as those with annual sales between $10,000 and $99,999. Large farms have sales of more than $100,000.
Agriculture officials say the downward spiral won't end anytime soon.
"It's those (mid-sized) farmers, those in the center, that are really getting squeezed out," said Richard Rathge, director of the State Data Center at North Dakota State University. "And those farms are being divvied up by the larger farmers."
To make ends meet, farmers are diversifying, getting bigger or they're getting out, agriculture officials say.
Since 1990, conservation programs that pay farmers to take land out of production and urban sprawl have reduced farm acres by 10 percent. Still, the state's average farm sizes have increased by 9 percent. Minnesota's average farm size has grown from 337 acres to 362 acres.
The region's farm numbers peaked in the mid 1930s and have been declining ever since, Rathge said.
"We're seeing this trend going back literally decades," he said. "It's a trend that is changing the structure of agriculture dramatically."
Doug Johnson's farm became part of the trend.
"The average-sized farms are dropping like flies," said Johnson who farmed near Felton until two years ago. "Looking around the countryside around my place, there's not a whole lot of guys left."
In 1998, after 24 years of growing sugar beets, sunflowers and small grains, Johnson gave up 900 acres of rented land and sold his equipment.
"With the prices the way they were, the cash flow looked terrible," Johnson said. "I decided to cut my losses."
Instead of shoveling wheat, Johnson now handles baggage for Northwest Airlines at Hector International Airport in Fargo, N.D. Johnson, his wife, Kristin, and their four children still live in their rural Felton farmhouse, but other farmers are now working the nearby fields that he once tilled.
"If I thought there was some way to farm again and make a living at it, that would be nice," he said. "I like the life. But with the current prices the way they are I don't know how they're doing it."
For the last four years, with some commodity prices falling to near-record lows, Congress has passed annual bailouts to keep farmers afloat. Government aid made up nearly half of the nation's farm income last year. But it's the wealthiest producers who have received the bulk of government support.
Operators of mid-sized farms are adapting to survive, said Michael Schommer, a spokesman for the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Farmers are diversifying, investing in value-added businesses and growing specialty crops to expand their market opportunities, he said.
"I don't think it can be overstated the impact that globalization and international trade has on agriculture production," he said. "What's happening in agriculture right now is really a revolution."
Growing international trade is creating a demand for organic crops, crops that can be traced to their origins and other niche markets that small and mid-sized growers are well-suited to fill, Schommer said.
Farmers aren't assured success by simply increasing their acreage, Evert said.
"For a long time, people thought that was in total the secret to success -- that if you were big enough, you could survive," he said. "All farmers, regardless of their equity level or size are having to make substantial changes to be profitable."
"I don't think anybody can assume that farming will be like it was in the past," Evert said. "It's changing."
Schommer believes small and mid-sized farms have a future in production agriculture.
"I think that we will continue to see larger farms, but we will also see smaller farms that produce a specific high-value product," he said. "It offers a niche that can be taken advantage of," he said. "It offers hope."
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