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Josh Bergeron: Agriculture census provides insight into vital part of Rowan County

The number of farms in Rowan County is on the decline while the average acreage of farms is on the rise, according to the Census of Agriculture released this year by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

From 2012 to 2017, the number of farms in Rowan decreased from 1,011 to 925. Meanwhile the average size of local farms increased from 120 to 129 acres.

Reduction in numbers of farms and increases in acreage have been consistent trends over the prior three surveys conducted by the USDA, which occur every five years, said Amy-Lynn Albertson, director of the Rowan County Agricultural Extension Office. For the most part, the trend is driven by local farms who see the opportunity to purchase more land to increase acreages and those who inherit property, Albertson said.

There are not so-called “mega farms” or industrial farming operations consolidating land in Rowan, Albertson said.

But the consolidation among local farms is not an isolated trend. The same trend is present at the national and state level.

Neighboring counties such as Davie and Davidson show the same trend between 2012 and 2017. Stanly County bucked the trend, actually showing an increase in the number of total farms.

Albertson said the recent trend isn’t necessarily a negative or positive one. And Rowan’s story is one of fluctuation. Interestingly, there were actually fewer farms and more acres counted as farmland in Rowan County 30 years ago than 2017, according to USDA data. Meanwhile, in 1982 there were more farms.

The average farm size in 1987 was roughly the same as it is today. But in 1978, it was slightly larger — 141 acres as compared to 129 today.

Albertson said property may be counted as farmland for purposes of the agriculture census when owners file an IRS Schedule F form, which is used to report taxable income from farming or agricultural activities. As an example, Albertson said, someone could have less than an acre of land and be counted as a farm if he or she files the form. Size and gross income aren’t primary factors.

“There are people who don’t get counted because they don’t report income taxes under schedule F,” Albertson said. “And forestry for example is hard to track because it’s counted only if you claim income from a sale.”

To help combat that, Albertson said an effort to encourage farmers to self-report began in 2016.

“It’s only as good as the people who report,” she said.

There are an unknown number of other trends worth noting in the census results, even for those of us who don’t directly work in agriculture. We all need commercial agriculture to live and to deliver products to the supermarkets we shop at. So trends in the industry are relevant to all of us.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue put it well in an April news release when he said, “We can all use the census to tell the tremendous story of U.S. agriculture and how it is changing.”

The number of hired Rowan farm workers, for example, dropped from 1,076 people in 2012 to 1,048 people in 2017.

And there was a sizable increase in the number of beef cows on farms in Rowan County, from 7,676 in 2012 to 8,704 in 2017.

One positive trend, Albertson said, was an increase in those growing and a heightened interest in specialty crops such as industrial hemp. Congress took steps in late 2018 to legalize the growth, sale and transportation of industrial hemp seeds and, for years, hemp-related events in Rowan County have drawn crowds of interested growers.

The opening of Carolina Malt House, near Cleveland, in 2016 also brought a heightened interest in growing barley, Albertson said. And that’s proven by statistics in the most recent agriculture census. There were 19 farms growing 1,346 acres of barley in 2012 and 36 Rowan County farms growing a total of 2,558 acres in 2017.

Carolina Malt House provides malted grain locally and to craft beer makers throughout the state.

So, how would Albertson describe the 2017 agricultural census? Rowan County’s agricultural industry is “holding its own,” she said. It remains among the top counties in the state for dairies, tomatoes and strawberries, for example. And Rowan businesses such as Morgan Ridge Vineyards and Patterson Farms have carved out a niche for themselves in agritourism.

Lately, Rowan’s elected leaders have rightly been focused on economic growth and bringing good-paying jobs to our community, but we can’t forget about the multi-faceted character that makes our county unique. There’s a healthy mix of urban spaces and open land. The health of our county’s agriculture industry is a vital part of that.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post. Email him at josh.bergeron@salisburypost.com.

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