Business

If NC wants to feed itself – and the world – it needs to save its farms

Sights like this – of a Chatham County farmer harvesting his silage corn last fall – are not as widespread as they once were in North Carolina. The number of farms in the state is declining, even as the state remains highly dependent on agricultural output for jobs and revenue.
Sights like this – of a Chatham County farmer harvesting his silage corn last fall – are not as widespread as they once were in North Carolina. The number of farms in the state is declining, even as the state remains highly dependent on agricultural output for jobs and revenue. hlynch@newsobserver.com

North Carolina appears to be at a literal crossroads regarding its agricultural future.

By every measure, North Carolina is a national agricultural leader, and the state is highly dependent on agricultural output for jobs and revenue.

According to a study by N.C. State University, agriculture and agribusiness provides 663,000 jobs – 17 percent of all jobs in the state. This is topped only by education and healthcare with 765,000 jobs (though North Carolina is also a top agricultural educator, which contributes to the growth of this industry).

North Carolina’s agricultural industry, including food, fiber, and forestry, contributes $84 billion to the state’s economy, making North Carolina one of the top farming producers in the Southeast.

We also have one of the most diversified farming states in the U.S. From the state’s 52,000 farms, over 80 different commodities are produced. We are a top 10 producer in 19 commodities and are number one nationally in sweet potatoes and tobacco. Other top commodities include turkeys, hogs, strawberries, cotton, chickens, tomatoes and blueberries.

Additionally, we’re the 11th largest overall U.S. agricultural exporter and top the ranks in tobacco with $562 million in exports and are second in pork ($739 million) and poultry ($669 million).

In 2012, NC had 52,000 farms – 2,700 fewer farms than in 2007 and 100,000 fewer than the early 1960s.

The 2013 Census of Aquaculture puts North Carolina in the top 15 nationally in the fishing industry, including being third in the country for trout and fifth for catfish. We also have almost 19 million acres of forest land (60 percent of our state’s total land base) – helping the state rank second in the South for sawn-log production and providing 5,000 jobs.

While this all adds up to a dynamic economic picture, there are troubling signs on the horizon.

First, our farming population is growing older. According to the most recent Agriculture Census, the average age of a North Carolina farmer is almost 59 years old (a bit higher than the national average).

Second, the number of farms in North Carolina is in steady decline. In 2012 (the most recent census data), North Carolina had 52,000 farms – 2,700 fewer farms than it did in 2007 and 100,000 fewer than the early 1960s. And since 2002, there has been a decrease of over 660,000 acres of farmed land (even though the average size of a farm has grown to 168 acres).

And, though the market value of NC agricultural products increased 22 percent to $12.6 billion and the per-farm average value of sales grew by 28 percent to $250,000 the economic gains have been far from evenly distributed.

Of the 52,000 farms in North Carolina 79 percent of them recorded less than $50,000 in revenue. And only 43 percent of farms in the state recorded any net economic gains between 2007 and 2012. In other words, most of the farmers in the state are working harder for less. This, in turn, is leading more young people to abandon their farming roots and is helping accelerate consolidation and farm closures.

To try and reverse these tides, the North Carolina Rural Center has recently published Rural Counts – a set of 10 strategies for rural North Carolina’s future. Included in the recommendations: increase innovation in education and workforce development, invest in stronger entrepreneurship and small business in rural areas, help farmers get more income for what they grow and raise, increase bio-tech opportunities, and increase entry and retention of young adults into farming.

To help create a future talent pipeline, North Carolina’s 4-H chapter has more than 208,000 participants. Leadership development opportunities are also provided by the Farm Bureau’s Institute for Future Agriculture Leaders and the North Carolina FFA.

The Golden LEAF foundation also recently gave NC State a grant of $45 million to help launch the North Carolina Plant Sciences Initiative – an effort designed to improve crop yields, introduce new crop and plant varieties, help farms be more resilient in the face of climate change, and increase crop output. As Dan Gerlach from the Golden LEAF says, the initiative is designed to “give rural North Carolina a competitive market advantage in feeding, fueling, and clothing a growing global population.”

Indeed, demand for food is expected to double globally by 2050, and, as North Carolina continues to grow in population, so too does our appetite for food.

North Carolina is well positioned to feed the world. But it’s going to take forward thinking policy, pro-active investment, and sustained effort to build on our agricultural foundation rather than see it erode away.

Christopher Gergen is CEO of Forward Impact, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

Christopher Gergen is a Founding Partner of HQ Community, a fellow in Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Duke University, and author of Life Entrepreneurs: Ordinary People Creating Extraordinary Lives. Stephen Martin is deputy chief of staff at the nonprofit Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro. They can be reached at authors@bullcityforward.org and followed on Twitter through @cgergen.

  Comments