2017 USDA Census of Agriculture Released: What it tells us about WNC agriculture

On April 11 the 2017 USDA Census of Agriculture database was released. The Census of Agriculture is the most comprehensive and consistent source of data available regarding farm businesses, farmland, and farmers, down to the county level. It is released every five years and consists of over six million data points about agriculture. The Census of Agriculture is a valuable data source for ASAP’s Local Food Research Center because it provides a detailed picture of agriculture in the region and the changes taking place in our local food and farming economy.

Here are some of our initial impressions from the Census:

From 2012 to 2017 the 23 counties of Western North Carolina (WNC) lost nearly 900 farms—mirroring a decline across the state and nation. However, farm loss is primarily isolated to farms growing products other than food. Nearly 60% of the farm loss falls into a category that includes Christmas tree farms and nursery crops, likely highly impacted by the economic downturn of the recession. The other area of significant farm loss is in farms raising cows and calves for the national meat processing industry and the farms growing hay and grain for cattle feed. Collectively, these decreases make up 35% of the overall farm loss. Finally, tobacco farms continued to decline by half of the remaining farms growing the crop, accounting for 4% of the farms lost. In comparison, the number of farms producing fruits, vegetables, poultry, and eggs held steady with growth in some counties and declines in others. For example, Buncombe County gained 34 farms growing fruit, 23 growing vegetables, and 63 producing poultry products.

About half of the counties in WNC lost acres of farmland from 2012-2017, contributing to a loss of 1,022 acres overall. Much of the loss was concentrated in the northern counties of WNC, while Buncombe County gained 804 acres and Henderson County gained 5,347 acres. The average farm size increased in nearly every county, resulting in an average of 93 acres, up from 85.5 acres.

In an effort to improve reporting, the Census of Agriculture changed both the survey process and definitions in a few of the categories the Local Food Research Center relies on for tracking change in the production and sale of local products. This unfortunately prevents us from comparing the data to 2012 and identifying trends. The new 2017 data shows that 11% of the farms in WNC sell products directly to consumers through outlets like farmers markets, community supported agriculture, farm stores, agritourism, etc. This includes the apple farms of Henderson County, where 22% of farms sell direct, and Buncombe County, where 16% sell direct. WNC sold $14.9 million worth of local products. This is up from $8.7 million in 2012, but for the first time this measure now includes value-added products like cheese, jam, and wine, so it cannot meaningfully be compared. WNC farms also sold $11 million worth of product directly to retail institutions like hospitals, schools, universities, etc.

Demographic information was also gathered differently than in 2012 so is not directly comparable to 2017 data. While the survey previously limited each farm to one principal operator, it now acknowledges that spouses or adult children often shoulder equal responsibility for making the day-to-day decisions for the farm business. The inclusion of their demographic information results in a larger number of younger farmers and women than years past. 30% of the primary producers in WNC are women, and 98% are white. The average age is 58.3, which is slightly higher than the national average of 57.5. This includes 5% under age 35, 55% between 35 and 65, and 40% that are 65 or older.

With such a treasure trove of data it will take some time before the full picture of WNC agriculture can be seen. To recap – WNC continues to lose farms, just like the rest of the state and country, but retain farms that are growing food for local markets. The average age of farmers is getting older, also like the rest of the country. Farms growing fruits and vegetables are increasing in places and decreasing in others but overall the farms we are losing are not the farms growing food for local consumption. Christmas trees and other nursery crop farms were hit hard by the recession and constituted the bulk of WNC farm loss. Tobacco, which once was king in WNC but was nearly gone by the last Census, continues in steep decline. Cow-calf, which is an important segment of regional agriculture and occupies a tremendous amount of farmland, continues to succumb to an aging farmer population and marginal economics. And because of changes in the way questions were asked about direct sales we can’t compare past data to the most recent Census to understand trends. ASAP’s Local Food Research Center will continue to pour over the data to identify trends and make sense of our changing agriculture and will post on our findings as they emerge.

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