Most farmers will produce less in 1979, but make more money for it, according to agribusiness economists.
But before producers rejoice too much, that old culprit inflation will show itself not only on the nation's dinner plates but also in the producers' pocketbooks in the form of higher production costs.
If weather for farmers and ranchers isn't fair and if inflation worsens, U.S. food prices could rise by as much as 10 percent in 1979, according to the Agriculture Department. At best, prices will rise 6 percent for consumers, the USDA says.
The average consumer spends one-fourth of his food budget on meat, 60 percent of which is beef. Economists expect demand for beef to continue to be strong in 1979, although purchases of the higher-priced cuss are likely to drop during a recession.
As the nation moves through the regular, 10-year "cattle cycle," beef producers are continuing to trim their herd sizes, reducing the cattle population in this country.
According to the cycle, as the beef supply drops, prices at auction begin to rise. Economists expect this price rise to continue through this year. Cattlemen then will build their herds again, resulting in a flooded market and lower prices to producer and consumer.
In response to this, several years from now, ranchers again will cut back, sending to the feedlot the stock they would have used for breeding purposes.
This is the phase the cycle is in now, with record numers of cattle going to the feedlot, increasing the supply of fed beef and, hence, the supply of higher-grade cuts.
What this cycle means to consumers in 1979 is hamburger will look a lot like steak by the time the buyer reaches the cash register.
"All beef prices will go up, but ground beef will go up more than others, narrowing the traditional price spread between hamburger and other cuts," says a market analyst for the Texas Cattle Feeders Association.
Beef prices rose substantially to record levels last year, and experts predict the trend will continue possibly into the next decade, according to General Accounting Office reports on beef marketing.
And while beef production tapers off, competitive meat production will rise, according to Department of Agriculture projections.
The shopper will find about 10 percent more pork at the meat counter in 1979 than in '78, and about 9 percent more poultry products.
Fuel costs; interest rates on agricultural loans, without which most producers would fold; and higher taxes will continue to diminish profits for the farmer and rancher through 1979, adding again to the consumer's cost, said John Hopkin, head of the agricultural economics department at Texas A&M University.
Agricultural economists expect about 2 billion pounds of beef to be imported into the U.S. in 1979 compared with domestic production of 24 billion pounds.
Predictions for grain and row crops during 1979 are harder to figure.
In terms of production, this should be another big year, according to Hopkin and the USDA, but inflation could push production costs high enough that net farm income from crops would not grow during 1979 despite predicted record harvests.
The recent freeze that wiped out Texas' fruit and vegetable harvest was a calamity that spells bonanza to producers in Florida and California. Such calamities mean total income on a short crop will be higher for producers in unaffected areas, and consumers will pay higher prices in the marketplace.