Consumer Demand May Breath Life Into an Endangered Species

Posted by By at 18 May, at 07 : 13 AM Print

The 2011 Census of Agriculture by Statistics Canada reveals the past five years have seen a 10 percent reduction in the number of farms in our northern neighbor’s inventory.

But the average farm size has increased by about seven percent. In one province, the number of farms is down 17 percent, while the average farm size is up 15 percent.

What’s up with that?

To find out, I visited with the Adams County, Pennsylvania, Ag Land Preservation Board Director Ellen Dayhoff  and GIS Analyst /Preservation Specialist Mark Clowney.

In 2007, the average size of a preserved farm in Pennsylvania was 123 acres, Clowney said, but the average size of an actual farming operation was 500 acres. The difference?

A preserved farm may not actually be in production. If it is, it may not be the landowner doing the farming. While an urban dweller may think a whole acre to be a large area, 123 acres of farmland will support only a few cattle or a hay, corn, or soybean field. Chances are profits will be slim, if they exist at all.

“If they were making money – a profit – they’d want to stay in it (active farming),” Dayhoff commented.

Instead, they sell or lease the land to other, larger producers, who, although they also may own as few as 123 acres, actually control hundreds, sometimes thousands more.

Hence, as noted in the Canadian study, the number of farms decreases while the number of acres farmed increases.

It is a picture I have seen, and written about, elsewhere. In 1998 I moved to a newspaper in South-Central Pennsylvania, the Gettysburg Times, and began writing about many of the same issues I had written about in Central Maine, my previous home. Farmers were selling out, cashing in their retirement accounts because their kids, if they had any, we’re not interested in working so hard for so little return.

The decision to sell, especially for those with a couple hundred acres, was made easier by land speculators and developers knocking at the gate offering, in many cases, more than 10 times what the land was worth as farmland. Home buyers were able to buy new homes in rural areas for prices they thought were a bargain, but which local young residents – and many older residents – could not afford.

The prices were so attractive that the new buyers found it economical to commute two hours or more between their jobs and their new homes.

And it was a period when county farmland preservation programs were clamoring for taxpayer funding so they could buy development rights – roughly the difference between what land was worth as farmland and what it would be worth growing houses.

They might not keep a farmer farming, but with an easement prohibiting development they would at least keep a developer from paving over the cornfield. Often, the owner of a small preserved parcel – in that average 123-acre category – would sell or lease the land to a working farmer, who will use it to increase overall production, and profits.

Adams county has preserved nearly 20,000 acres of farmland since it was established in 1990.

The decision to quit farming usually is the result of a math problem: too high cost and too little profit. The rising cost of oil, for instance, adds to the cost of operating machinery, as well as the cost of feed and fertilizer.

“A lot of them work off the farm,” Mark Clowney said of younger farmers need for medical insurance and other benefits.

About 80 percent of beginning farmers and their spouses find work in other industries to supplement the benefits they cannot afford in their primary endeavor.

“Little guys are in niche markets such as organic growing – or (the land) is going to a bigger guy,” Clowney said.

Diversification is the profit watchword. Operations such as the Wilkinsons, Clowneys, and Hesses have multiple generations, milk at least hundreds of cows, and farm 500 to 4,000 acres. Some raise corn, pumpkins, hay, and soybeans. In many cases, they produce milk and also harvest and some haul hay and straw to mushroom growers in other states.

A few miles from my home, Mason-Dixon Farm’s 2,200 dairy cows virtually milk themselves in an automated system, methane generates electricity the farm sells to utilities, and farmers from around the globe visit to learn innovative methods of feeding hungry consumers.

The traditionally depicted family farm – with a few head of dairy cows, or a farm stand selling fresh produce to passers-by – looked for awhile as though it was on the endangered species list, but it may be staging a comeback. A new generation of growers is bringing with it computers and collaborations, such as Young Growers Alliance, their ancestors only two generations ago would have considered anathematic to the agricultural way of life.

They are cooperating in promoting shared farmers markets, and trucking fresh produce to big city restaurants. “Locally Grown,” to those eateries, has come to mean the food was picked this morning, maybe last night, and is being served this evening, and this new crop of growers is capitalizing on the demand.

A growing interest in food sources has raised the demand for unprocessed milk, as well as enticed small producers to make ice cream and goat cheese and raise heirloom tomatoes and kiwis. Community gardens are proliferating, including in places one hardly thinks of as rural – rooftops in New York City, for instance.

“If they were making money – a profit – they’d want to stay in it,” Dayhoff said of farmers who were leaving the life.

Consumer demand for a variety of fresh, safe, tasteful, food may turn around the numbers – giving us more, smaller, and more specialized farms.

That can only be good.

Photo by Runner Jenny
This post was written by:
- who has written 169 posts for Rock The Capital
John Messeder is an award winning journalist with more than 35 years experience writing about education, environment and local government issues. He has lived in Maine, Florida, California and Alaska, and, by temporary turns, numerous places in between. John also is an accomplished photographer, and avid hiker, conservationist, oral history buff, and author of several books he has not yet got 'round to writing. He lives in Adams County, Pa., just over a hill from Gettysburg, with his wife and Golden Retriever. He may be contacted at - Email jmesseder

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