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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.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

His hypothetical formula for change: 10 farmers in an African or Latin American country getting together to roast coffee and also to truck it to market, by themselves, by hiring others to do it or by participating in a joint venture. “They’ll be minding two or maybe even three stores, and they’ll have to put some of those resources in,” Benedict said, “but they’ll acquire capital much more quickly.” And sooner rather than later, “they will become consumers” of manufactured items.

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He can see the dangers in agribusiness any time he goes out to inspect his own fields. His farm’s steady growth came, as he said, “as opportunities presented themselves.” The translation: as other farms failed.

Benedict doesn’t like to talk much about specific profits and losses. But it’s clear that he counts among his proudest accomplishments the fact that he has been able to remain on the land.

He loves the life. His grandfather’s house, now much-renovated, stands north of Clay County Road 75 just west of the spot where the pavement ends and the gravel surface begins. Two rows of Scotch pines flank the drive, and the twin cities of Moorhead, Minn., and Fargo, N.D., seem very distant, though they can be reached in 20 minutes or less.

Buck, his brown Chesapeake Bay retriever, matches his stride as he heads for a pickup truck and pulls a photo from the dash. The Benedicts used it for their Christmas card last year; it shows the whole clan gathered around a combine.

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Two Benedict sons have not joined Benedict Farms. One, Michael, is an engineer at the sugar-beet plant that his father helped take over. The youngest, Luke, is a senior in high school, with plans for college but not beyond. Once he graduates, Luke said, “it’s still open” what career path he will follow.

What does Pat want him to do? “What I want is for the kids to get the education so they have a choice,” Benedict said. “Sales, management. They need the tools"--even, especially, if they want to stay on the Clay County soil that is nurturing its fourth generation of Benedicts along with the wheat, corn and beets.

What It Takes to Grow an Acre of Wheat

For a typical Kansas wheat farm

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Rain: 15-20 inches

Materials: 20 lbs. phosphate; 40 lbs. nitrogen; 45-60 lbs. seed; pest/weed control

Production costs: Materials: $30; Harvesting: $18; Fuel, maintenance: $16; Labor: $10.80; Interest, depreciation, taxes: $44.70; TOTAL COST PER ACRE: $119.50.

Return per acre:

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$135.50*

35 bushels of wheat equals 2,450 loaves of bread.

*Recent average price

Source: Kansas Farm Bureau

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BENEDICT FARMS INC.

Location: Sabin, Minn.

Annual sales: $2 million

Net worth: $539,390

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Acres: About 6,800. About 2,300 are owned outright by the Benedict family. The rest is leased.

Approximate acres planted:

3,500 in wheat

2,070 in sugar beets

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1,000 in corn

125 in irrigated alfalfa

100 in barley


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