When the U.S. Constitution was signed in Philadelphia Sept. 17, 1787, nearly 90 percent of the people in this country lived and worked on farms. Most owned their own land. Today, only about 2 percent of Americans live on farms and less than 500,000 produce 80 percent of this country's food and fiber.

Farmers, two centuries ago, made a huge impact on this country's laws and charted its future. Of the 55 delegates to the constitutional convention, 22 derived at least half their income from agriculture and had an interest in issues that affected farmers.In the 1920s, there were 27,000 farms in Utah and 6.5 million farms in America and more than 31 million Americans worked and lived on farms. Practically every American knew where milk and cheese, butter and eggs, steak and ham and bacon came from. They knew that wool comes from sheep and cotton from a plant.

But times have changed. By 1975, the number of farms in Utah had shrunk to only 12,600, the number of farms in America had dwindled to 2.3 million and only 8.3 million people lived on farms. Farm size had increased, however, to nearly four times the size of the 1920s farm.

The trend to larger farms and fewer farmers continues. By the year 2000, farm economists predict, there will only be 300,000 farms producing most of this country's food and fiber.

Knowledge about farming among the majority of Americans is disappearing. Gardening is not farming and while many Americans enjoy growing things in a flower box or a backyard plot, they learn little about the rigors of modern farming and the expenses and hardships of growing 5,000 acres of wheat or raising 5,000 head of beef cattle.

Fewer and fewer young people are getting into production farming. From 1978 to 1982, the number of new farmers under 35 dropped by nearly 40 percent, a recent study shows. Most American farmers are middle aged or older and they are retiring from the land steadily.

America needs new, young farmers and needs a political and economic climate for farming that will attract young people and encourage them to stay on the land.

Many farm experts contend that if corporations take over America's farms, efficiency will drop drastically, prices of food and fiber will rise dramatically and the variety and quality of fresh fruits and vegetables will diminish.

Individual farmers competing in the market place, striving for better yields, higher quality produce and fewer costs has built the greatest food and fiber producing nation in the world - America, where inexpensive food is a tradition.

What will happen to this country if we lose the farming know-how we've become famous for, lose the competitiveness and ingenuity of the individual farmer-business man and woman that has enabled the average U.S. farmer to produce enough food to feed himself and nearly 75 others?

The U.S. government should take the lead, now, in building programs to insure that there will be plenty of farmers in the future and a "future" for farming that will attract young people.

Farmers themselves should build programs that see to it that Americans relearn about farming and about where food and fiber comes from. Too many people in government today - who make decisions about farming - know little or nothing about farming. They need to be taught.

It is not uncommon to hear people ask: "What is so important about farmers? Who cares if they go broke or quit farming?" The fact that people can ask such questions is a sign of how far this nation has come - away from the land and from nature.

These questions are often asked by people who think milk comes from a carton in a grocery store and meat comes from a case in a supermarket.

The simple facts are that agriculture is this nation's biggest industry and its largest employer.

Nearly 18 percent of the total U.S. gross national product comes from agriculture and about 21 million people work in some phase of agriculture - from processing food in a canning factory and driving a produce truck to stacking grocery shelves or working at a checkout stand in a supermarket.

The nation's whole economy rests on the shoulders of the production farmer and rancher. We need as many shoulders as we can get.