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GLOBAL AGRICULTURE : Big Business : Growing Crops by Computer in America : On his Minnesota mega-farm, Patrick Benedict cultivates thousands of acres with just seven employees.

August 30, 1994|JUDY PASTERNAK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SABIN, Minn. — In 1900, Edwin Benedict left Wisconsin to farm on the wind-whipped prairie here. By the time his grandson Patrick joined the enterprise in 1951, the Depression had shrunk the spread substantially, to fewer than 400 acres, but it still took as many as 70 hired men to harvest the onions and sugar beets by hand.

Now, as the century closes, Benedict Farms Inc., with annual sales of $2 million, sprawls over 6,800 acres. Patrick Benedict, 60 and silver-haired, and his family own about 2,300 acres outright, each valued at about $1,000, and lease the rest. He cultivates the land with seven employees, more than $1 million worth of equipment and, perhaps most important, two computers.

In two generations, the American farm, while still very much a family business, has blasted into the corporate era. Over two decades, the number of U.S. farms decreased by more than half, while the average size grew by 1 1/2 times. Those who could manipulate the high-tech tools of the trade bought or rented the property of those who could not, or would not, change their ways.

Paterfamilias and company president, in traditional blue jeans and plaid shirt, Pat Benedict sits at his keyboard for several hours each day. The changing figures and charts on his monitor show him the weather, current market prices and the cost-efficiency of every field--how much seed went in, how much fertilizer went on, how much crop came out of the ground.

His wife and secretary-treasurer, Fran, calculates the payroll in the gray frame house where his grandmother once cooked huge meals on a wood stove to feed the threshing crews. Daughter Lisa Mann helps keep the books. Sons Blaine, Kurt and David hold shares and work the soil.

Their product line: wheat, sugar beets, corn, barley and irrigated alfalfa.

Net worth, according to Dun & Bradstreet: $539,390.

"I think there's a good future in it," Benedict said.

But like any number of executives in any number of industries, he counsels diversification to avoid the fate of those who have been forced out. It is the same advice he would offer to potential agri-magnates and economy-builders in emerging nations.

To get through lean times--like last year, when Benedict Farms, he says, almost broke even but didn't quite--he has invested in other parts of what he calls "the food chain."

He has served as chairman of the board of a local bank, learning the whys and wherefores of credit. He organized 1,200 growers to buy out the American Crystal Sugar Co. plant, which mills sugar beets. He and nine others built a grain elevator, which stores harvested crops and sells to distributors when the price is right. The elevator operation includes a fertilizer and chemical dealership.

In both cases, he not only wrested profits away from processor-middlemen but gained control over when he could sell the fruits of his own operation--no small consideration when prices fluctuate from day to day and week to week.

He is president of another group planning to start a corn syrup factory from scratch. He talks of someday manufacturing bread or cake mix nearby.

"As we move from a domestic economy to a global economy," he said, he is going to need that support more and more. "I'm suggesting," he added, breaking into a smile, "that GATT and NAFTA are not going to be the savior of the American farm. We won't have access to the markets where the people are prosperous. They want to be self-sufficient in food. We'll be trying to sell food to people who don't have any money."

He has traveled through Europe, viewing sugar co-ops in the Netherlands and forging an alliance with a Danish seed company. And in 1991, he represented agriculture in a U.S. delegation to the former the Soviet Union.

At a collective where a farm the size of his Minnesota spread supported 1,200 members, Benedict realized: "They know how to grow crops. They know how to raise livestock." He asked the manager what he would change if he could, and the answer came quickly: "Get rid of two-thirds of the people." On the collective, herders still kept track of cattle when fences would do, and the people had to be sheltered, fed and paid.

Mechanizing would only be part of the solution to rationalizing a Soviet collective, Benedict says. And he suspects the most pressing needs are the same in other sections of the globe. "What they're missing is transportation, infrastructure to get their products to the markets. They need political stability."

The U.S. government, he believes, should not provide either one for other countries: "No. No. They're going to have to do that themselves. We can show them the way, but we should not try to be involved."

He preaches for them what he's been practicing here. "Try to involve producers in the value-added process from the beginning," he said. "That is the shortcut."

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