CHICAGO: After an extremely worrisome start that fanned fears of famine and economic devastation, the most crucial American crop is now on track for a bountiful harvest, the government said Tuesday.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is forecasting the second-highest corn yield on record with production of 12.3 billion bushels, nearly 600 million bushels more than it anticipated earlier in the summer.

"We dodged a bullet," said Bill Nelson, a grains analyst for Wachovia.

Out on the American farm, the ducks and pheasants are losing ground. Thousands of farmers are pulling their fields out of the government's biggest conservation program, spurning guaranteed annual payments for a chance to cash in on the boom in wheat, soybeans, corn and other crops. Last fall, they took back as many acres as are in Rhode Island and Delaware combined.