STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
Some other news now. 2011 was not a great economic year but American farmers made almost $98 billion last year, their biggest earnings ever. High commodity prices and surging productivity have touched off a run on farm land, and a big jump in farm machinery manufacturing.
Frank Morris of member station KCUR in Kansas City, looks at the agriculture boom in this latest installment of our economic series, "Looking Up."
FRANK MORRIS, BYLINE: Across the plains, farmers are gearing up for spring planting, and farm stores are humming.
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UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: Thanks, Bill.
MORRIS: At the farmers co-op in Spring Hill, Kansas, a steady stream of men in hard-worn canvas jackets line up to buy fertilizer. Rita Cooper says her customers are investing heavily in next fall's harvest.
RITA COOPER: They are going ahead and, you know, committing to the dollars, committing to the orders, planting, getting it into the ground. And yes, they are doing that extra above and beyond to get the crop.
MORRIS: Wasn't always this way. In the 1980s, tens of thousands of farmers went broke and were forced off their land. Huge Farm Aid concerts raised money to help some hang on.
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MORRIS: Brutal hard times and foreclosures went on for years. But Jason Henderson, who runs the Omaha branch of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, says all that's changed now.
JASON HENDERSON KANSAS CITY FEDERAL RESERVE BANK: Over the last two, three years, the U.S. farm sector has been enjoying banner farm incomes. It's been a real boom time.
MORRIS: Farm income has shot up almost 30 percent, each of the last two years. Chad Hart, at the University of Iowa, says both prices and production are high.
CHAD HART: As we look at the 2011 corn and soybean crops in this country, they're probably the most valuable crops we've ever produced.
MORRIS: The corn crop alone is worth well over $76 billion. Two major factors drive demand. Exports have surged to new record levels. China is the top importer. Domestic consumption is up too, fueled by a huge rise in ethanol production.
It adds up to high prices, and happy farmers.
RICK KROLL: Oh yeah. Yeah, can't complain. Prices have been real good. Crops ain't been bad either.
MORRIS: Smile lines plow deep into Rick Kroll's face. He's here at the Western Farm Show in Kansas City, where farmers, and their whole families, check out the latest tractors and farm implements. Thanks in part to these enormous and incredibly precise machines, modern farmers can work much more land, and get two or three times more grain off each bit of it than their fathers did. When farmers have money, they tend to buy one of two things: land or equipment.
And prices for both have shot up dramatically. Kroll is eyeing a $200,000 tractor, while some of his younger relations climb on it.
KROLL: Hey Danny, my birthday's Tuesday.
DANNY: Buy it?
KROLL: Yeah, just go ahead and buy it for me, feel free.
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MORRIS: Kroll's joking. But many larger-scale farmers like Paul Vavre from Nebraska are feeling pretty free these past few years.
PAUL VAVRE: Yeah, I bought a combine and a couple John Deer tractors, yeah. Yeah, gets up there pretty expensive, you know.
MORRIS: A couple big tractors and a combine could run you well over a million dollars, and take months to deliver. Ernie Vietze, who like many men here, sports a John Deere shirt and a serious mustache, sells equipment, as fast as he can get it.
ERNIE VIETZE: The company is making machines practically as fast as they can make 'em.
MORRIS: Farm equipment factories are producing jobs twice as fast as the rest of the manufacturing sector. All that new equipment flooding into the market presents another opportunity for guys like Manny De La Fuente.
MANNY DE LA FUENTE: You end up with all these used machinery and you've got to have a place to put it. So overseas is hungry for this equipment.
MORRIS: De La Fuente is the export manager for Arends Brothers. The company regularly ships trade-in tractors and combines from Illinois to Africa, the former Soviet Bloc countries, and Latin America. He says his exports have jumped 50 percent in two years.
FUENTE: Business is up. So 2011 was good, and 2012 is going to be even better.
MORRIS: The forecast for agriculture as whole is not quite as rosy. Back at the farm show, John Mino just bought a used combine, but sees leaner times coming.
JOHN MINO: No, I think it's a cycle. I think you'll see some tough years ahead. So hang on, have a few good years and get ready for something else.
MORRIS: Economists say the boom in agriculture may have hit its peak. They predict farm incomes will fall slightly this year, but remain close to historic highs.
For NPR News, I'm Frank Morris in Kansas City.