Orange County celebrates Small Farms Week

Orange County has seen substantial growth in the number of small farms and farm income in recent years while the size of farms has gotten significantly smaller. To celebrate the growth of these farms, Cooperative Extension at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University is hosting the 32nd Annual Small Farms Week from March 25-31.

According to data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, from 1997-2012, the number of farms in Orange County increased from 485 to 645 while the acreage of active farmland decreased from 72,515 to 56,666. 

"Small farms make important contributions in developing a more profitable farming model and that model’s ability to revitalize rural economies," said Michael Lanier, an Agribusiness Area Agent for Orange County Cooperative Extension. "The success of these small farms has been primarily a result of paying attention to the needs and wants of their customers and delivering on them. In return, the farmers who run these farms are being rewarded economically, resulting in a model that makes it possible for farmers to make a living on just a few acres of farm income."

In the 1970s and earlier, thousands of farmers across the state farmed 8-10 acres of tobacco and had a small hog operation. These farmers could gross more than $100,000 a year of farm income in today’s dollars.

During that time period a significant number of dairy farmers in the Piedmont made a living with much smaller herds than the average herd size of the few remaining dairies left in the region. Changes in laws governing the dairy industry impacted dairy farms, but a bigger factor for all of agriculture was the consolidation of businesses that process and market farm goods.

Prior to this consolidation, local mills bought grains and beans from farmers, stockyards bought and sold livestock, poultry and meat, and dairy processing facilities, bakeries, seed companies, equipment and supply businesses existed in almost every community. Much of this infrastructure is no longer widely dispersed and has been consolidated to a point that there is very little competition for farm commodities, which has negatively affected farm prices (see Table – A Forty Year Decline in Farm Prices).

The number of farms began to grow in earnest in the early to mid-2000s. These new farms began selling directly to consumers, which was a natural response to this market situation. In 1997, the USDA reported that only 20 farms in the county sold food directly to consumers. In 2012, that number had increased 500 percent to 120. Sales increased from $26,000 in 1997 to more than $1.4 million in 2012.

The success of today’s small farms is attracting young people to farming, said Lanier, who coordinates Orange County Cooperative Extension’s Beginning Farmer program. The median age of students who have taken the class during its first 10 years is 40, compared to the overall average age of Orange County farmers, which was 58.6 years in 2016.

By producing food products that consumers want, gross income per acre by farmers with several years of experience can range from $30,000-$50,000 per acre, Lanier said. Net income per acre on these farms is variable depending on the debt load and the expense efficiency of each farmer.

Small entrepreneurial farms that are paying attention to basic business concepts and located in close proximity to consumers in urban areas are succeeding by taking a critical look at conventional agriculture and identifying ways they can creatively improve on that model. These farms have also been a catalyst for recreating local, farm-related processing, distribution, and sales businesses that generate local jobs and help make local communities more self-reliant in terms of food security. The creation of these new jobs and the focus on high-value crops that can increase net income per acre by as much as 100 times or more are also beginning to revitalize rural economies.

“To this point, the positive impacts of small farms have been mostly limited to the counties on the fringe of large urban areas," said Lanier. “However, the creativity exhibited by these small farms and their adherence to basic business concepts will no doubt spread beyond today’s direct market farmers to wholesale opportunities that will provide positive economic impacts for farming communities located in more rural areas."

With urban areas to the east (Raleigh-Durham) and west (Triad), Orange County is ideally situated to take advantage of this trend.

Commodity Average Prices 1972-76 in 2016 prices Average Prices 2012-16 in 2016 prices % change
Corn $10.62 $4.94 -114.97
Soybeans $26.17 $12.15 -115.36
Wheat $15.35 $6.27 -144.67
Calves $200.88 208.96 3.87
Cattle $175.28 $138.39 -26.65
Hogs $182.51 $63.98 -185.28
Milk $38.50 $19.59 -96.53
Sources: Prices calculated using the Consumer Price Index Calculator and historical farm prices from Farmdoc, University of Illinois at Urbana – Champaign.