RALEIGH — Farmers in North Carolina are slightly older and a little scarcer than they were a few years ago, according to a new census released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday.
Agriculture remains North Carolina’s largest industry, contributing $70 billion a year to the economy and employing more than 17 percent of the work force, according to the state agriculture department. The federal census, which comes out every five years, shows that industry is aging and becoming more centralized.
It found that the average North Carolina farmer was 59 years old in 2012, close to two years older than in 2007. It also shows that the number of farms in the state has decreased by 5 percent, to 50,218, even as the amount of farmland has shrunk by only about 1 percent, to about 8.4 million acres.
Farms are getting larger. The average farm in 2012 was 168 acres, 8 acres more than in 2007.
“You have to be larger now just to survive,” said Dennis Durham, chairman of the Johnston County Farm Bureau. “The margins are so low, the profit margins per acre, that you have to be able to turn over a lot of volume to make it feasible.”
Heftier production costs are partly behind the move to larger farms, Durham said.
“Most of the inputs we use, whether it be fertilizer, chemicals, seed, it pretty much just moves parallel to the price of petroleum, of gas,” he said. “Obviously gas costs more than it did a few years ago.”
As oil prices rise, the cost of many farming products – especially fertilizers that are byproducts of petroleum refining – goes up. According to the census, the average farmer paid 28 percent more to run a farm in 2012 than in 2007. And most farmers lose money each year.
In both census years, 57 percent of farmers had a net financial loss. But in 2012, the losses were larger: the number of farms with losses of $10,000 or more rose 14 percent, to 9,418 in 2012, and those with losses of $50,000 or more rose 41 percent, 1,599 in 2012.
The financial pressure on farmers is enough to age anyone, but that’s not the reason for the age rise. There are simply fewer young people in the business. Since 2007, the number of farmers under 25 years old dropped from 129 to 118.
Durham attributes that to how hard it is to break into the business.
“It’s extremely difficult for a young person to start farming unless their parents farm...because of the financial requirements, the capital outlays,” he said. “There are just not many young people staying in agriculture anymore.”