Acres of farmland disappearing, but not as fast

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 4, 2011

By Karissa Minn
SALISBURY — North Carolina has lost 1 million acres of farmland over the past decade, with about 8.6 million acres remaining, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture.
This includes Rowan County, where 32 percent of land mass is some type of farming operation, including 983 farms on nearly 116,000 acres, according to a 2007 report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).
The agriculture department doesn’t expect farmland to keep shrinking at the same rate, said Joe Hampton, research operations manager at the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury.
But for someone to be around to work the land that’s left, younger generations of farmers must continue to be trained.
“If you look at the cost of the land, equipment and operating monies needed, all of those things are prohibitive for a young person to get in,” Hampton said. “You almost have to have some kind of family relation with an existing farmer to start into farming today.”
To help them enter farming without any family connection, people late in their farming career could serve as mentors to young people.
Organizations like FFA, or Future Farmers of America, and 4-H work through local clubs to cultivate students’ interest in farming, develop their skills and give them hands-on experience.
As of the 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture, the average age of a farmer in North Carolina was 57 — one year older than in 2002. These land and population trends are similar nationwide. Young people are becoming farmers, but there may not be enough to take over one day for their parents and grandparents.
“That’s a long-term problem for our society,” Hampton said. “We need to have people producing food, from a national security standpoint. … We have to find ways to transition farms to the next generation.”
Patterson Farm
Michelle Patterson and her husband, Doug, run Patterson Farms in Mount Ulla with Doug’s brother Randall Patterson and his wife, Nora. They are the third generation to run Patterson Farms, which began in 1919 as James Patterson and Sons.
Michelle Patterson said she isn’t sure whether the fourth generation — her three daughters, niece and nephew — will continue it.
“My husband’s grandparents and his parents worked really hard, and we’ve worked really hard, to keep the farm going,” she said. “Of course, we hope that it does.”
But Patterson said it’s important for the children to choose whatever career they want, even if none of the five choose farming.
“We hope that if we inspire any child who comes out here to farm, then all this is worth it,” she said.
Patterson leads groups on educational tours of the farm with seasonal themes. The tours provide another source of income for the family and aim to teach both children and adults about the importance farming.
“We really want young children, but also families and people in general to really understand what all is involved with farming and understand where food comes from, because people are so far removed from it today,” Patterson said. “A lot of people see it at the grocery store or get it at a fast food restaurant.”
Since Patterson Farms entered the agri-tourism business, its annual visitor count has grown from 400 people in 1994 to 25,000 people in 2009. They no longer come just to buy produce but also to get the experience of picking their own on a farm.
The family grows a variety of fruits and vegetables on about 450 acres of land. During the summer, the farm employs as many as 250 people.
But no amount of success can eliminate the challenges farmers face from the weather, the economy and even the government.
Meeting various government regulations is getting more difficult and costly, said Doug Patterson. And while the rising costs of fuel, fertilizer and other supplies are fairly predictable, Mother Nature is much less so.

“You can use all the technology you want and do everything strictly by the book, and one windstorm, one rainstorm, one dry summer or one hot month can just take all your profits away,” he said. “There’s lots of other careers that definitely do not have the risk and liability that you’re going to have in farming.”
The couple says the struggles are often worth it for people who are passionate about farming, though, and there are plenty of those still around.
“I think that people that do this for a living do it because they really love it,” Michelle said. “They tend to have a lot of faith that each year is going to get better. It’s just very rewarding.”
Contact reporter Karissa Minn at 704-797-4222.