State News

Agricultural landscape changes with the times in NC

Posted September 17

— North Carolina has a rich agricultural history, and throughout the centuries it has been an industry that continues to change, evolve — and shrink.

"No nation has ever had so few people actually farming," J. Paul Lilly, a professor at N.C. State University, wrote in a 1990s paper, "Agricultural History of North Carolina," now published on the N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services website. "This is a social change that has isolated most people from rural life and from an appreciation of the compactness and uncertainties of food production."

Despite this, agriculture is big business in North Carolina. Agriculture and agribusiness account for one-sixth of the state's income and employees. Michael Walden, a professor at NCSU, says that that 17 percent, or $84 billion of the state's $482 billion gross product, was attributable to the food, fiber and forestry industries in 2014, accounting for 686,200 of the state's 4 million workers.

But where is farming in North Carolina going? It's a landscape that's shifting as growers look for new revenue streams.

Once in North Carolina, tobacco was king, but it's been dethroned by poultry.

In 1964, tobacco brought in almost $1 billion in revenue to North Carolina farmers. By 1982, it was $1.05 billion.

But as more people learned of the dangers of the crop and smoking rates began to drop, so did revenue, from $956 million in 1992 to $733 million in 2012.

By the mid-aughts, the federal government instituted a buyout program and deregulated tobacco. The government paid billions of dollars to U.S. tobacco farmers to transition out of the business.

"Many farmers took the money and invested it in real estate or simply started growing grain crops," said Melissa Huffman, an Onslow County extension agent. "Some of the larger farmers bought more barns and grew more tobacco — though this was a very limited number — and some of those that expanded their tobacco production didn't stay in the business too long."

Called the Tobacco Transition Payment Project, the program led to a significant reduction in the number of farms that grew tobacco, said Nick Piggott, a NCSU professor.

"Many of the former tobacco farms were sold, and farmers retired," he said. "Other farmers used the payments to expand by buying up farms, becoming larger operations and expanding projection into new crops, including fruits and vegetables."

Across the state, there continue to be initiatives to assist in the transition away from tobacco, said Mark Blevins, director of the cooperative extension service in Brunswick County.

"Muscadine grapes, vegetables, aquaculture and other options have helped the state's farmers, while others sold land, merged farms or dealt with the slim margins and high risks of raising crops," he said.

Yet some, like Richard Enoch, hold onto the green leaf. Enoch is a fourth-generation tobacco farmer in Alamance County. He said that there is still a large demand for tobacco, particularly in the foreign market. He also recently began planting organic tobacco, which he said can fetch twice as much as regular tobacco.

Enoch is 72. His two sons help farm the land, as do migrant laborers who work through the summer into the fall harvesting the 120 or so acres of tobacco plants on the farm.

"We don't have a lot, but we are happy," he said.

Poultry, including eggs, is a $4.8 billion business, followed by hogs, $2.9 billion; soybeans, $800 million; tobacco, $733 million; and corn, $657 million.

North Carolina is the top producer of tobacco and sweet potatoes in the United States. The state is also known for pork, soybeans, nursery corps, and a variety of fruits and vegetables, said Brian Long, public affairs director for N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The farming community in Alamance County has seen quite a few changes over the years, said Mark Danieley, director of the Alamance County Center of the N.C. Cooperative Extension. "Alamance County in the 1970s had over 100 dairy farms, and now that is less than 10," he said. "Most of our farmers are over 60 years of age, and many are starting to scale back on the amount of farming that they are doing. There are fewer farmers now, but the farmers that are still farming are tending larger acreage."

Labor and water are two of the biggest issues farmers in North Carolina face, Long said. The state is typically among the nation's largest users of the migrant guest worker program, and the booming population growth places demands on water resources.

"The state's population growth brings a lot of pressure to develop open space, particularly farms and forest," Long said. "From 1970 to 2010, North Carolina lost 6.6 million acres of farmland and 97,000 farms. Land loss slowed down a bit during the Great Recession, but we're seeing renewed development pressure as the economy has improved. North Carolina now ranks ninth in the nation in population and is adding 281 residents every day. They need houses, roads, places to shop, and that ratchets up the pressure to develop farmland."

Add into the mix that farmers are getting older without having anyone to pass their farming traditions down to. The average age of a North Carolina farmer is now around 59.

"There is concern about whether new generations will take up farming," Long said.

Blevins echoed the statement.

"Farm estate planning isn't easy, and not all farm families have adult children who want to carry on the operation," he said. "This is one of the biggest challenges facing agriculture now: how to transfer the skills and the assets of farming into the future so we we can feed a growing global and national population on fewer and fewer acres."

Blevins said that another huge challenge that farmers face is a negative perception of what farmers do.

"Very few people understand where their food comes from and how it gets from the field to the table, since few of us are actually involved in farming anymore," he said. "A slim percentage of our population cares for the land, water, animals and plants that feed and clothe us, and I wish the rest of us would appreciate the hard work and stewardship that goes into farming. Respect for the farmers and fishermen I work with makes all my food taste that much better."

Some farmers are turning away from some crops. In turn, as farmers continue to diversify, they are also embracing new trends and reviving old ones. For example, Piggott cited the reintroduction of grain sorghum production.

"It has the potential to be a more profitable alternative for farmers who have sandy soils under dry weather conditions, with lower input costs, compared with growing corn that has higher input costs and limited-yield potential in the sandy soils," he said.

Henderson County, known for its apple production, now has 125 growers who farm more than 30 new varieties of apples, said Marvin Owings, director of the Cooperative Extension Service there.

"The larger farms are getting bigger, and the small farms are increasingly relying on direct markets or retail sales," he said. "The small family farms are surviving through a two-family income plus direct market sales."

"The farming community will continue to adapt in a competitive world market, which means continued investments in new technologies," Piggott said. "We will continue to see farmers producing more with less inputs and innovative new technologies increase yields."

And while population growth can present problems, it also presents opportunities.

"With the expanding urban city of Charlotte next door, I think that we will continue to see increasing opportunities to supply farmers markets, restaurants, and grocery stores with fresh local agricultural products," said David Fogarty, director of the Gaston County Cooperative Extension Service. "Also, as more people move into this area, the demand for landscaping plants will increase

In the 1990s, hog farms came under fire after waste spills, which led to a moratorium on hog production, keeping the industry from expanding, and to sweeping regulations on how hog farmers operate.

Walden cites the importance of the environment on farming in an upcoming book.

"If global warming is occurring — and continues to occur — the impacts on North Carolina's agriculture will be complex," he writes. "Higher temperatures reduce yields for some crops and increase expenses for others to maintain yields. Countering these negative effects are a longer growing season and the potential for increased carbon dioxide that actually aids the production of many crops. Animals are also stressed by higher temperatures, but this stress can be controlled for the livestock raised in North Carolina (predominantly poultry and swine) by keeping the animals in climate-controlled enclosures."

W. Bryon McMurry, director of the Cleveland County Farm Service Agency, said that while growing up on a fifth-generation farm, he saw agriculture as a way of life. He never thought about the possibility of it disappearing from the state's landscape.

Not anymore.

Cotton had been planted every year since the mid-1800s but 2016 was the first year that the crop wasn't planted at all in Cleveland County since then. McMurry blames a beetle called the "boll weevil" and a drop in the price of cotton

"Unless there is significant changes in crop prices and a Farm Bill that truly assists producers, as well as the ability for farmers to adapt to a changing climate, farming could be reduced to only a handful of operations in Cleveland County 10 years from now," he said. "Without proper planning, Cleveland County could become endangered unless our county leaders and farmers stay connected and realize the significance of farming."

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