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U.S. Government Pulls the Plug on Century-Old Agriculture Yearbook : Farmers: New communications technology is more useful than old publication.

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Not quite a century ago, farmers in remote parts of the country started turning to a government handbook for the latest knowledge about agriculture and rural life.

With articles on everything from “grain smuts” to making kerosene emulsion insecticides, the new Yearbook of Agriculture told farmers just about all there was to know to be more productive.

As communication improved and the number of farmers declined, topics strayed from agriculture and demand for the yearbook fell.

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Finally, Congress declared no more yearbooks: The 1993 volume, due out early next year, will be the last.

Rep. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), the new chairman of the appropriations subcommittee for agriculture, said farmers could get the same kind of information much more quickly through computers, cable television and other technology. Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy called it “a yearbook nobody reads.”

That wasn’t always so. At a publication ceremony for the 1965 yearbook, “Consumers All,” Lady Bird Johnson called it “the most remarkable compilation of information between two covers.”

“I should have had this book when I started housekeeping,” the then-First Lady said.

The book, brimming with all kinds of advice, became so popular that Congress ordered a second printing and commercial publishers issued it in paperback.

No one knows for sure how much will be saved by killing the yearbook. Employees from throughout the department contribute articles. Durbin’s subcommittee estimates at least $450,000 will be spared in the department’s Office of Public Affairs. That doesn’t include the reduced printing costs or free postage by Congress.

The book was originally printed for members of Congress to give away. But the Government Printing Office also tried to sell it. “Consumers All” sold 125,000 copies in 1965, the best modern performance. “Trees” in 1949 sold 123,000. Annual sales now approach 7,000.

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Today, some members of Congress can’t even give it away. Rep. James P. Moran, a Democrat from a Virginia suburb of Washington, puts out copies at county fairs and other events, but has few takers.

“We’ll have a few on hand in case there are some farmers in our midst,” said Mame Reiley, Moran’s top aide.

The House Agriculture Committee snaps up unwanted volumes for poor school districts in Texas to use as textbooks.

“It’s an awful lot of money to produce a book that I think in a lot of cases contains information that farmers already know,” said John T. Zubal, a Cleveland-based dealer in rare and scholarly books.

The first yearbook was published in 1894, with a press run of half a million copies and a cost of $300,000. It was jammed with statistics and articles on “mineral phosphates as fertilizers,” “grasses as sand and soil binders,” “facts concerning ramie.”

But in 1936, the plain old “yearbook” began getting catchy titles and exploring single subjects.

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Such energetic New Deal titles as “Soils and Men” and “Food and Life” gave way in the late 1940s and 1950s to the monosyllabic “Land,” “Water” and “Grass.”

“Food is important in keeping our people and our country strong,” Agriculture Secretary Ezra Taft Benson said in the opening to “Food,” immortalizing the obvious in the 1959 yearbook devoted to nutrition.

The 1963 volume, “A Place to Live,” worried about the economic decline of rural America. The introspective ‘70s produced volumes on “Living on a Few Acres” and “Gardening for Food and Fun.”

The each-for-his-own ‘80s began with a Malthusian question: “Will There Be Enough Food?” The New Age ‘90s include the 1992 volume, “New Crops, New Uses, New Markets.”

Though he stocks old yearbooks, Zubal said few have any value, and cancellation won’t do anything for the price. A few annual reports that preceded the yearbooks run in value from $75 to $250 because of color plates and other graphic work. He recently sold a 20-foot collection of old “technical bulletins” from the Agriculture Department for $250 at auction. “No big money.”

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