Looking Locally at the Ag Census

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In my last article, I discussed the new United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Census of Agriculture that was released this past February. This census provides a comprehensive look at U.S. farms and ranches and the people who operate them along with a snapshot on land use and ownership, operator characteristics, production practices, income and expenditures.

The previous article focused primarily on how North Carolina stacked up nationally in agricultural stats and production, but this time we’re going to narrow our focus and take a local look at Lee County’s profile. Keep in mind the data for the census is released every five years, so the information I’ll be discussing reflects numbers from 2022.

Let’s start with the positives. The number of total farms in Lee County increased from 250 in 2017 to 264 in 2022 with the number of farms 1 – 179 acres increasing by 11%. The market value of agricultural products sold has also increased by roughly 10% since the last census (54 million in 2017 compared to 60 million in 2022). Digging into these numbers, it’s encouraging to see that the total number of farms in the county has increased. Our Extension office has definitely noticed an uptick in small farms in the area, oftentimes initiated by military veterans, early retirees, expanded homesteaders, or individuals and families looking to supplement their household income. Overall, agricultural products have held their value, particularly higher value per acre crops like fruits and vegetables.

Now let’s shift to some of the challenges that the data lays out for us. Although the number of total farms increased over the last five years (due primarily to the rise in smaller sized farms outlined previously), larger farms 180 – 1,000+ acres have decreased by 30% during this same time period. This is further reinforced by data showing that the total land in farms fell by 11% and the size of the average farm has decreased by 16% since the last census. Total cropland has also decreased by more than 27% over the last five years, from 19,534 acres in 2017 to 14,187 in 2022. The takeaways from this data are pretty straightforward. Lee County, like North Carolina and many other southern states, are losing farmland at a rapid rate due to development and population growth. Although these trends are alarming, there is reason for optimism through proactive land use planning and collaborative farmland preservation efforts.

In next month’s article, I’ll highlight some local efforts being made to balance growth and development in conjunction with innovative farmland preservation initiatives.

Bill Stone is the County Extension Director for North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Lee County.