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It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Robert Siegel.
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And I'm Melissa Block. There's a long tradition in this country of independent family farms - small farms - a tradition that goes back at least as far as Thomas Jefferson. But the family farms that grow most of our food have gotten bigger and bigger. Take a look at the latest census of American agriculture released this year. The census says there are 2 million farms in America. But just a few of those farms - four percent of them - account for two-thirds of all agricultural production. NPR's Dan Charles explores how those big farms got there and what was lost along the way.
DAN CHARLES, BYLINE: As I was driving to meet the Oplingers and the Zengers I got really confused. I knew they were farmers but the address they gave me turned out to be in the suburbs east of Manhattan, Kans. I saw curving streets and neatly trimmed lawns in well-appointed houses. But there wasn't a field or tractor anywhere.
TODD ZENGER: How you doing?
CHARLES: Am I at the right place? I'm Dan Charles.
ZENGER: You bet.
ZENGER: Todd Zenger.
CHARLES: Good to meet you.
ZENGER: Come on in.
CHARLES: Alright. Thanks.
It was in fact the home of Todd and Ky Zenger. They're young - still in their thirties. And their home is also the operations center for a farm. The fields are far away. It would take hours to get there by car. They're actually located in three completely separate parts of Kansas hundreds of miles apart. But we can sit at Todd Zenger's desk and look down at them with Google maps.
ZENGER: This is our Greensburg farm. This is our Goodland farm. This is our Jewell farm.
CHARLES: This computer is linked directly to equipment on the farms. Zenger can check the moisture of corn in his grain bins. He can see what workers are doing with farm equipment almost minute by minute.
ZENGER: This pink line is where a tractor drove in the last 24 hours and you can see which tractor it is.
CHARLES: This farming operation covers 16,000 acres - 25 square miles of Kansas farmland. Once upon a time there were probably dozens of farms on that land - dozens of families. Now, he and his father-in-law manage this operation with just seven full-time employees. Those employees plant the seeds, spread the fertilizer, keep the irrigation water flowing. Zenger spends more of his time here figuring out what seeds to buy - when to sell the harvest.
ZENGER: I'm in here most days paying attention to the grain markets. You have to forward contract. You have to hedge - locking in profits.
CHARLES: The story of this farm and how it got so big helped explain how American agriculture has changed over the past few decades. It's also an example of how those changes evoke mixed feelings - sadness, resignation, even some anger. It starts with the white-haired man who's standing behind Todd Zenger just listening. It's his father-in-law, Roger Oplinger. Oplinger grew up in the 1950s and '60s riding horses and milking cows on a small farm near the tiny town of Jewell in north-central Kansas.
ROGER OPLINGER: The natural thing for me as a farm kid is I wanted to do things differently. I wanted to use automation. I wanted to farm more acres.
CHARLES: He started small with 80 acres that he bought from his grandfather. He raised hogs and grew crops. Eventually he decided to just focus on growing crops - wheat, sorghum, soybeans and corn. He worked hard - took big risks.
OPLINGER: I probably on the edge of bankruptcy every year from '80 to '95. I mean it was really tough.
CHARLES: But he survived and grew. His farm got bigger, he says, because it just made business sense. It was part of the drive to be more efficient.
OPLINGER: The natural process is - I don't care what you do in capitalism - it's to grow. And it's to be profitable.
CHARLES: New technology came along - tractors that steer themselves using GPS, bigger planters and harvesters. You could afford to buy that equipment if you were big. And the technology made it a lot easier to farm more acres. Put that together and growth meant bigger profits. And then he could afford to buy even more land. It was a path to prosperity. But when you talk to Roger Oplinger about it, you get the sense that there's a more painful side of that journey. He only lives part of the year now in Jewell, his hometown. It's become a lonely place for him, he says. Some people in town don't even talk to him anymore.
OPLINGER: I hate to say it but there's a lot of jealousy
CHARLES: When there's a land auction and he walks in it gets real quiet. You know what the other farmers are thinking, he says.
OPLINGER: How much is too much? How much is enough?
CHARLES: So Roger Oplinger feels like he has to defend himself and large-scale farming.
OPLINGER: Our farm grew to be large in a way that I have a very good conscience about - clear conscience.
CHARLES: Some farms grow at the expense of other people, he says. But we expanded in many cases because farm families came to us and asked us to rent their land or buy their farms.
OPLINGER: Because they could no longer within their family arm them and get the return from the land that they wanted.
CHARLES: But Oplinger admits such decisions come with a cost. When families give up farming and move away, it drains life out of small communities. Oplinger's hometown of Jewell, for example, no longer has its own schools. The population of Jewell County has fallen by half over the past 50 years. There's no longer a store in the entire county where you can buy a pair of dress shoes or a new suit.
DOM TESKE: So I was raised up here on the hill. My mother still lives there.
CHARLES: Donn Teske is a Kansas farmer whose watched these changes carefully and up close. He's vice president of the National Farmers Union. He lives near the town of Wheaton, Kans., where the stained-glass windows of the congregational church, the most impressive building in town, are now partly boarded up. Teske has deep roots in this community. As he drives me around the rolling grasslands and fields, he pulls out pictures of ancestors who built a new life here.
TESKE: This is great-great-grandpa Michael Teske. And he emigrated from Germany in October 1868.
CHARLES: Teske points out a tree-lined homestead were old friends once lived. They're long gone now.
TESKE: Where his house set there's no house. And then the barn will soon be torn down. And there's another segment of the local community that's gone.
CHARLES: This is happening in lots of places, he says. An extreme version is the panhandle of Texas.
TESKE: There's nothing left on that panhandle but huge modern farms and boarded-up main streets of the county seats and the hospitals. And that's really sad to see.
CHARLES: Teske doesn't have a solution really. Economic competition between neighbors is a fact of farm life, he says. Also young people moving away because they see opportunity somewhere else. They leave behind family farms with no farmers. In fact, Tuske says, this might be the story with my own farm.
TESKE: We've survived on the farm. We raised four kids here. I'm proud of all my kids. They're going to do fine in the world. But I don't know if any of them will come back to the farm.
CHARLES: Meanwhile Roger Oplinger and his wife Barbara are handing over management of their mega-farm to their daughter Ky and her husband Todd Zenger. So you could say this big farm is succeeding in keeping the family tradition alive. It's the cutting edge of agriculture and opportunity for the next generation. But that younger generation isn't exactly on the farm either. The Zengers live a long way from the little town of Jewell. Dan Charles. NPR News.
SIEGEL: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.