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Small farms changing face of agriculture

PRINCETON, Kan. (AP)--The biggest trend in farming is small. Small like the operation on the outskirts of this mini-burg run principally by Ferna Louden--churner of her own butter, maker of her own cheese and yogurt--with help from her husband, Bob, and, especially, his nonfarm job and its health insurance.

"How's my Martha Mae?" she coos to her Jersey cow--part dairy producer, part pet.

Louden takes great comfort in knowing where her family's milk comes from--even if it means hand-working a teat damaged by a turtle bite. Ditto, where and how the household's eggs, chickens, pork and many of its vegetables are raised.

She moved the family two years ago from Alton, Ill., to the edge of the Kansas prairie, to live off 17 acres nurtured as naturally as is practical.

In that way, she represents a new turn in American farming.

Almost since the Homestead Act of 1862, economics and steadily improving technology have made it more practical and necessary for farmers to live off ever larger tracts, to be ever more reliant on bigger machinery, chemical treatments, hybrids and even genetically modified crops.

Now the U.S. Department of Agriculture's 2007 census has detected an uptick in the number of farms--more than 290,000 new ones in the previous five years, or a rise of 4 percent in the total.

Like the Loudens, they are generally small operations made possible by some other kind of employment in the family. These new farmers are younger than the norm. Compared with the average, they are less likely to be white and more likely to be female.

Quite often, they don't set out to produce commodity food--grain that goes from field to silo to train car to factory or livestock bound for a slaughterhouse then to a distant grocery.

Rather, new farms tend toward the boutique. They are refined to fit the stylized concerns for the environment or diet, or both, of grower and source-savvy consumer.

For families such as the Loudens--she's the descendant of homesteaders and was raised in small-town Kansas, he hails from Chicago--the move to farming offers a way toward self-sufficiency and an embrace of rural life.

"To sit down at a table of pork chops or chicken and eggs and mashed potatoes and milk, all off of our farm, is wonderful," said Ferna Louden. "There's no feeling like it you can imagine."

In the larger scheme, large farms are continuing to absorb more ground as midsize farmers sell off.

A niche of smaller farms--10, 20 or 30 acres compared with the national average of 400-plus acres or operations on the Great Plains that can routinely stretch over 1,000 acres--has sprung up just beyond the suburbs. It feeds a growing appetite for food that a cook can tie to its producer.

"People want a connection. Farmers want a connection to the people who eat their foods. Then consumers want to have a connection to who makes their food," said Katherine Kelly, the executive director of the Kansas City Center for Urban Agriculture.

Even if the farms are not certified as organic--an unwieldy process that can take five years or more to establish--they often champion the way they avoid pesticides on crops and hormones and preventive antibiotics in livestock.

"That's what we want," said Ferna Louden. "It's what the people who come to us want."

"You've almost got a cottage industry. Someone raises a few head of cattle and shares the beef with a few neighbors, and those neighbors share their sweet corn and so on," said Eddie Wells, a USDA statistician.

He noted that the new, small farms in Kansas are clustered near urban areas such as Kansas City and Wichita. That gives them easy access to farmers' markets and makes them close enough that fussy consumers can drive to the farms for freshly laid eggs or just-slaughtered meat.

The new farms are often as much about cultivating a lifestyle as growing food for profit. (Bob Louden is a geologist who works for an environmental consulting firm. He is less optimistic than his wife about the farm one day paying for itself.)

"People can be really starry-eyed about what farming looks like and how it's going to feel and how it's going to fit in with their family and how it's going to fit in with the rest of their lives," Kelly said. "They learn pretty quickly it can be hard work."

And for most of them, not quickly profitable. Of America's 2.2 million farms, only 1 million show a profit. The rest rely on off-farm jobs to cover the cost of farming.

Just 7 percent of Missouri's farmers are responsible for three-fourths of the state's agricultural production. In Kansas, two-thirds of agricultural output comes from less than 3 percent of its farms.

It's almost as if the new and the established are in different businesses.

The Loudens talk about the rolled eyes they have provoked with their emotional attachments to their livestock--"Martha will never end up as hamburger"--and how they may be forever seen as city folk.

For advice, they are as likely to turn to fellow "homesteader" farmers found through the Internet as to neighbors. Those locals tend to focus on increasing the scale of their farming, while the homesteaders aim to raise food in ways they see as more natural.

The Loudens, for instance, let their chickens and pigs roam. They experimented with not castrating their hogs, only to give in to convention so the animals would be easier to sell at butchering time.

"We do things a little differently," said Bob Louden. "We are different."

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