Importance of Farms in Orange County

The other night District 2 County Commissioner candidate Steve Yuhasz said something to me that I found so incredible that I determined to do a little bit of research on the subject. Steve maintained that in 2006 there were only 3 farms in all of Orange County that claimed more than $20,000 farm income. He said that farming for a living was no longer viable. The implication was that if farming was not economically significant, then the county might as well be subdivided into more neighborhoods and strip malls. Steve said he got that info from something circulated by the Economic Devolpment subcomittee. How scary.

My first thought was how in the world would anybody get such information? Individual and corporate tax returns are considered so private that when the various gov't agencies that report on income sectors make their reports, they go to some lengths to make sure that nothing that could identify a specific person or farm can be gleaned from even a very careful reading of their summaries.

More to the point, as one of more than 30 people that recently completed the PLANT at Breeze new farmer incubator program, where numerous local farmers came to talk to those of us interested in beginning farming on our own, I just knew that the figure couldn't possibly be representative. Off the top of my head I could name nearly a dozen prosperous Orange County farmers, and I was positive that there were dozens more. So I set out to see what I could find about the real importance of farming in Orange. Orange is still a very rural county. What I found shocked me in the opposite direction.

According to the Ag-Econ info available from NCSU, total farm income, including gov't payments to the few remaining tobacco farmers, just for Orange County in 2006 was $43, 768,119. If one subtracts the $3,898,416 in gov't payments and subsidies, that's still $39,869,703, or very nearly $40 million dollars. (1)

A forty million dollar industry is a heck of an economic engine. But what does that figure mean? Well, according to NCDA stats and the 2002 Census, in 2002 there were 627 farms in Orange county totalling 71,010 acres, out of a total acreage all of Orange County of 255,866 acres. The average farm size in 2002 was 113 acres. (2)

Delving a little further into the 2002 Census for Agriculture (3), one finds that the 627 farms in 2002 in Orange was actually up from the 577 farms in 1997. The county agricultural economic development office guesstimates that when the number for 2007 comes out, it may actually show an increase from 2002. My experiences with new farmers and new farmer activists both in Orange and in Chatham would tend to bear that out.

But, what's more interesting is that the 2002 Census of Agriculture site (3) breaks down the number of farms by value group. In 2002, the largest value sector of farms were the 257 Orange farms valued between $200,000-$499,999. Table 8 gives quite detailed information that I'm not going to reprint here. The take home message is that ~27.7% of Orange County is farmland and it generates somewhere in the neighborhood of $40M/yr. That's not peanuts.

The County Extension office guesstimates that only about 1% of the food consumed in Orange is locally produced. Yet by my last count there were 5 OC farmer's markets that are growing every year both in the number of customers served, and in the number of farmers represented.

Going forward, as people become more conscious of eating local and eating healthy, and as fuel prices make shipping the contents of the average meal 1200 miles less financially viable, the need for local farms is going to increase, not decrease. Most of us are only a few generations removed from a time in which the vast majority of foods eaten traveled less than 100 miles to reach our tables. And, as fuel prices continue to climb, we will likely see value in returning to eating locally and seasonally. Support your local farmers. Go on the 13th Anual Piedmont Farm Tour April 19-20 (4), and see for yourself the vitality of Orange County Farms.

(1) scroll down to page 78 for Orange


(3) scroll down to page 9 of Table 8 for Orange




My theory about why some folks want to downplay the role of farms in Orange is fourfold. One, by state law, farms pay significantly less taxes than other landowners and are thus not seen as cash cows to be milked by politicians. Two, farmers rarely have time or energy to voice their concerns in endless strings of county meetings or online forums. Third, there's a disconnect for the vast majority of population regarding where food really comes from. Everybody knows food comes from the store or restaurant, right?

The forth reason is that many would seek to profit from simply annexing or subdividing and developing farmland. That's not entirely a bad thing, in that the only way many farms can survive is to sell off chunks to pay the bills. But like anything, it can have some severe and long lasting reprecussions down the road.

Currently, food prices in the US are kept artifically cheap by reliance on foreign imports, often using what amounts to slave labor, environmental pillage, and artificially cheap transportation, coupled with subsidies for giant monoculture agri-business that's more intent on today's profits than tomorrow's sustainability. Things weren't always this way, and there's no indication that any of those dependencies is actually dependable. In fact, there's every indication that the whole global food system is beginning to crack at the seams right now, due to population increases and rising lifestyle demands from around the world.

Anybody that's actually been paying attention to the prices at the supermarket can readily see the very beginning of what some analysts are predicting will become a worldwide food crunch. It's difficult to see this, precisely because this area has been so prosperous. But it's awfully telling that all four of the local mills that had representatives at the 2008 Orange County Ag Summit mentioned that they currently can't get enough grain to keep up with demand for bread and baked goods. What does it mean longterm when Smithfield Foods has to have a Wilmington port to import enough grain from Brazil and elsewhere to feed the livestock it processes for local sales? What does it mean longterm when the produce in the supermarket is imported from Asia, when NC is a huge produce producer itself?

A community that's wholly dependent upon outside food sources can't survive economic downturns very readily, and is at the mercy of it's suppliers. Food security = Homeland security = economic security.

With rising economic instability and rising fuel prices, food production is going to have to be re-localized one way or the other. Support your local farmers. Things you can do: join a CSA, start a community garden, get rid of useless lawns, grow your own produce in your backyards, learn where your meat actually comes from and how it's processed. Here's a handy resource for finding farms in Orange County by town, zip code or products:

"there's a disconnect for the vast majority of population regarding where food really comes from"

True, although perhaps not in the way you mean.  It seems to me that the American Public thinks their food comes from charming little farms where animals are well cared for etc.  But mostly this is not at all the case.

Mark, I agree. That's yet another reason to support small local farms where animals really are well cared for and treated humanely, rather than kept in confinement cages and processed like industrial parts. I really like the idea that I've visited the farms where my meat  and eggs come from and I know the farmers that raise them. If you come on the farm tour, you can see several examples of local farms that treat animals with dignity and respect.

And here's another idea for promoting livestock welfare. When I was in Jr High in PA, we had a field trip to a slaughterhouse. I'd highly recommend that and/or a trip to an NC factory hog farm as  mandatory field trips for middle schoolers, high schoolers on up.  When you see it done wrong, and then you see pastured poultry, pastured pork and salad bar beef, it changes forever the way one looks at food.

Did Yuhasz really say if farming was not economically significant, then the county might as well be subdivided into more neighborhoods and strip malls
No, as I clearly stated in the first post, Steve did not say that. I thought that it was sort of implied, given some other things he said. But he did not come right out and say that. What he did say was that farming was not economically viable and that the days of the old 100 acre farm were over. I believe I addressed both of those issues.

The Orange County EDC has an agricultural specialist on its payroll, Noah Ranells.  I suggest you direct some of these questions to him--I am sure that if there is data on this matter he will know about it.       I serve on the Economic Development Commission and I have never seen any data about  average farm incomes in Orange County--it might be there, but I don't think it's been on the table in front of the Commission anytime recently.  

  EDC studies have concluded that agricultural use  use is a net positive for the county---that it pays more in taxes than it uses in services.   Whether it is the "highest and best use" for specific parcels of land is another question and any change in use requires a change in zoning, which is i think almost always  initiated by the owner of the property.      Agriculture is often discussed  as a positive component of an overall economic development strategy for the county and the employment of Noah on the Economic Development Department payroll would tend to support that assertion.

<laughing> Who do you think put me on those websites I referenced in the first post? Noah is a friend. And remember that PLANT@Breeze program I mentioned? Noah led it. I need to put in a disclaimer though. Noah had absolutely nothing to do with my posting this here. But, he was very gracious in providing me with some useful information when I asked.

I'm very glad to hear that agriculture is seen as a positive component. I believe it's going to become increasingly necessary and important on a local scale. In fact, I believe it's going to become vital that every community ramp up local production and become less dependent upon a distribution system that's wholly predicated on artificially low fuel and growing costs and an industrial factory confinement production model that's already proved to be something of a failure on many different levels.

There's a good article in today's N&O about the Carrboro Farmer's market turning 30 and the younger, more progressive local farmers that make it work.

It talks about farmer's markets doubling nationwide from 1994 -2006 and how that trend will likely continue as more and more people recognize the value of eating locally produced, sustainable and organic foods.

List of Triangle Farmer's Markets here:

*Note that there is also a market at Duke, and a new one at UNC. Demand from consumers for new markets is definitely increasing.

I'm chuckling too and glad to hear that Noah is working hard!    I know that the study the EDC commissioned  a few years ago looking at the "carrying costs" of various kinds of land development options surprised me.  I didn't know until that info came back that agricultural use was such a  net positive in terms of tax revenues paid for services consumed.   And that is just one measure of "value" to a community. 

I grew up on a fairly large working farm myself in Western NC.   We finally could not keep it running---my family all had other jobs to support our love of our farm, and so we finally sold it, fortunately to someone who had the $$ to just hold the land and keep it intact for now.  He's a great fellow, but I am sure the old family farm is probably one generation away from becoming a development.  The man's kids have no interest in either living there or farming it.   My parents could not afford to keep it.  The money from the sale was an important part of their retirement planning. 

As someone who has traveled to Eastern Europe a few times, most recently Poland in 2006, I am dismayed to see that our regional agri-nightmare Smithfield Foods is disrupting the small farm economy of new EU states Poland and Romania.

See coverage via Grist and the IHT

Traveling by train is slow enough between Warsaw and Gdansk that it is very easy to get a good look at many of the trackside family farms that still exist, and are now threatened by CAFO operations.

With this in mind, it is all the more impressive to see that in close proximity to the heart of Smithfield operations, Orange County has established and supported a quite remarkable local agriculture community and it is one of our greatest assets. We are members of the Eco Farm CSA, and the last time I spoke with John Soehner about it, he had to take his hogs to somewhere north of Gibsonville to be processed.

We have three "Economic Development" districts in the county that are largely devoid of economic development. To me it would make sense that we target one of those EDs to house some type of agricultural processing facility- be it for animals, packaging of vegetables/value-added goods, or both. This might be a great way to turn a $40 million industry into a $60 million industry.


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