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Notebook Business



Farming out

Nearly a century after the Industrial ­Revolution, large corporate farming operations continue to displace traditional small farm owners through the use of bigger and more efficient equipment.

In its latest agricultural study, the Census Bureau found that just 3 percent of the nation's farms in 2002 produced more than 60 percent of the nation's agricultural goods.

While the number of farms with more than 3,500 acres grew by 18,000 since the last comprehensive survey in 1997, the number of farms with fewer than 1,000 acres dropped by 44,000.

"That middle group is so distressed," said Chris Hurt, an agriculture economist at Purdue University. "Many would like to grow to become larger commercial farmers, and drive their costs lower."

With the size of the average U.S. farm rising to 441 acres, the amount of land set aside for farming activities declined by 16 million acres in just five years. With fewer opportunities for young persons to make a living in farming, the average age of U.S. farm operators increased to 55 years. Only 6 percent of farmers were under 35.

The top five states in value of agricultural products sold are California ($25.7 billion), Texas ($14.1), Iowa ($12.3), Nebraska ($9.7) and Kansas ($8.7).

Bumper cars

If we can't keep people out of the path of automobiles, then maybe we should make the cars softer.

That's the strategy employed by Toyota Motor Corp., which is working to develop hoods that will cushion the impact for pedestrians who are hit by cars.

The research is being done at Toyota's state-of-the-art crash-test facilities in Japan, a country where pedestrians and bicyclists account for 43 percent of traffic fatalities. (Drivers total 39 percent and motorcyclists make up 18 percent.)

The softer hood design will be included in a model going on sale in Japan this fall, according to Toyota officials, but they haven't decided on overseas sales plans.

Efforts to protect pedestrians are more affordable than the high-tech computerized devices that help drivers stop before collisions happen or steer better on slippery roads, said Tomoyuki Fukatsu, project general manager at Toyota.

Still, Toyota and most other automobile manufacturers are working to develop smarter vehicles that automatically stay in their proper lanes and stop prior to a collision.

Balance Sheet

With a growing number of consumers discovering the convenience of paying bills online and shopping with debit cards, the firms that turn out billions of checks a year are being forced to retrench. Deluxe Corp., the nation's leading check printer, is closing four printing plants, while its main competitor, John H. Harland Co., plans to shutter five plants.

General Motors Corp., the world's No. 1 automaker, will invest more than $3 billion in China over the next three years. With its Chinese partners, GM plans to introduce nearly 20 new and upgraded products, including several Cadillac models that will be made in Shanghai.

Another low-fare airline is expected to hit the market next year to compete with industry leaders Jet Blue and Southwest Airlines. Virgin Group Ltd., which operates Virgin Express in Europe and Virgin Blue in Australia, will base the as-yet-unnamed airline in San Francisco.

Accused of ripping off customers with deceptive marketing, credit-­counseling company AmeriDebt has now filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. In November, AmeriDebt became the first credit-counseling company to have a federal lawsuit filed against it. Since then, the company has laid off most of its workers and stopped seeking new customers.