The financial health of farm families has been aided dramatically in recent years by federal subsidies, but Agriculture Department economists say a good job in town is the real meal ticket for a growing number of those who live on the land.

All told, the jobs and government payments helped push farm household earnings ahead of the U.S. average in 1985 and again in 1986, the first time that has happened since the 1970s.The mainstay for many families has been off-farm income. The job in town. A regular paycheck that is isolated from drought and the whipsawing of commodity prices.

"Although many observers and analysts previously considered off-farm employment as a transitional step to full-time farming operation, off-farm employment is becoming more common as farm operators and members of their households choose to pursue dual careers," says Donn Reimund of the department's Economic Research Service.

The agency noted in a report last winter that off-farm incomes were of growing importance to farm families and that the income gap between farm and non-farm narrowed again in the mid-1980s after widening since 1978.

In the latest installment, reported in a forthcoming issue of Farmline magazine, Reimund and his colleagues noted that the incomes of farm households trailed the U.S. average for six straight years before moving ahead in 1985 to an average of $29,436 against the national average for all households of $29,066, a 1 percent lead.

The gap widened in 1986 to 11 percent as the farm average rose to $34,246 per household, compared with $30,759 for the U.S. average. Both were record levels.