HARRISONBURG — Numbers released by the National Agricultural Statistics Service recently reveal a continuation of one industry trend and a slight reversal of another.
While larger farms continue to gobble up smaller ones in the state, the amount of land being used for agriculture — which had been in decline for years — has increased for the first time since 1993.
Ag officials don’t track the exact number of local farms each year. The recent survey doesn’t include a county breakdown and the 2012 ag census — which does include that breakdown — won’t be released until February 2014. But local officials report that Rockingham County is falling in line, more or less, with state trends.
Small Farm Decline
In an annual survey, NASS, the statistical branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, estimated that Virginia was home to 46,200 farms last year.
That’s 200 fewer farms compared with the 2011 survey. The number of farms making less than $100,000 in annual ag sales fell by 300, while operations earning more than that threshold increased by 100.
Between 2011 and 2012, the annual farm size increased by 3 acres to 174 acres.
The trend is far from new.
The number of Virginia farms peaked at 198,000 statewide in 1935, when the Great Depression pushed many workers back into the fields. That coincides with the nation’s highest recorded number of farms — 6.8 million operations in the same year.
Since 1935, that number has been falling on both the state and national scale.
In the 25 years following 1935, the number of farms in Virginia decreased from 198,000 to 105,000. Compared to such major drops, the number has remained relatively steady since 1990, when 46,000 farms were reported across the state — only 200 fewer than were estimated last year.
Local ag officials report slightly fewer farms in the area since 2007, when the last ag census was taken, with certain sectors of the industry seeing more of a decline.
Rockingham County dairy farms have declined from 235 reported operations in 2007 to 222 on the current dairy Grade “A” permit list.
Beef cattle farms, on the other hand, jumped from 806 operations in 2002 to 836 in 2007, with several additional local farmers reporting a switch to beef since then. No recent figures on the number of cattle farms in the county were immediately available.
As for poultry farms, Hobey Bauhan of the Virginia Poultry Federation reports a slight drop of county operations from about 526 in 2007 to roughly 500 currently.
“There’s been some pockets of growth in the poultry industry in recent years, but the general trend … probably since the mid-90s has been a contraction,” Bauhan said.
Farms are able to feed many more people thanks to technological advances that have led to modern high-yield agriculture, he added.
Farm Land Increase
Bucking a downward slide, the total amount of farmland in Virginia increased by 100,000 acres to 8.05 million acres from 2011 to 2012, according to the NASS survey.
John Welsh, Rockingham County extension agent, said the recession has slowed the pace of sales that transformed farmland into properties used for something other than agriculture.
Farmland was selling easily before 2009, but when the recession hit, it became increasingly harder to find buyers.
“In the Valley and certainly in Rockingham County in particular, I think we’ve seen kind of a … freeze or a slowing on the loss of farmland due to that,” he said.
This past year, some farmers have taken previously unused acres out of their stagnancy to plant row crops, which have become more profitable due mostly to the drought situated in the Midwest and Great Plains, he said.
In 2007, about 2,000 of the state’s farms were situated in Rockingham County. Their combined sales came to roughly $534 million.
The county has the most dairies in the state and is the country’s third largest turkey producing county.
Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or email@example.com