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Area farmers discuss ways to remain viable and make a living

By Scott Nicholson


Blake Brown, a professor at North Carolina State University addressed a crowd of agricultural professionals on a timely yet perennial topic: How can a farmer make a living?

Brown’s presentation, “Capturing Value,” touched on a number of issues affecting farmers everywhere, but even more so in the mountains, where growth pressures make open land almost too valuable to farm.

Brown, who has worked as a policy analyst in addition to growing up on a farm in Boone, said his grandfather told him in the 1970’s that getting an education was preferable to a farming life. Crops that once sold as commodities were now the domain of giant corporate operations, and small farms often couldn’t compete in the marketplace.

Brown presented some revealing statistics on the change in the state’s agricultural market. In 1983, tobacco accounted for 27 percent of the state’s farm income. Twenty years later, that figure is down to nine percent and could shrink even further with the end of government price supports.

Hog and poultry production accounted for 34 percent of the state’s farm income in 1983, but by 2003 that figure had risen to 57 percent. Three percent of the farm income came from greenhouse or nursery stock in 1983, but two decades later that had risen to 12 percent.

Brown also noted that in 2003, Christmas trees, a product limited to the mountains, accounted for one percent of the state’s farm income. “That may not sound like much,” Brown said. “But it was 99 million dollars.”

Brown also presented figures on organic farming, cut flowers, herbs, and other specialty markets, none of which totaled more than $1 million in total income.

However, when added together, they became a significant piece of the state’s agricultural picture.

“This is very relevant as we enter the 2008 farm bill,” Brown said, adding that most of the negotiations would center on price supports for a number of crops. While those decisions will mostly affect the agricultural giants, Brown said small farmers should pay attention to consumer needs and ways they can increase their profit margins. He pointed out that some crops, especially those either with a definitive local production or reliable local market, could tilt the competitive advantage to small farms. He cited native ornamental plants as one where local nurseries would have an advantage in supplying large local developments with landscaping because those nursery items typically wouldn’t be handled by the more familiar corporate sources. Cut flowers and nursery plants, where freshness might be a factor, could also be an advantageous market segment for the small grower.

One trend that is spreading to the mountains is viticulture, the development of grape strains for wine as well as the manufacturing and bottling of the product.

The Yadkin Valley is developing an identity as a wine-producing region, with wine tours and cooperative marketing efforts. However, Brown said lots of regions were latching onto that same idea.

“Everybody wants to be the next Napa Valley,” he said, referring to the  famous California wine country. “But if a specialty crop becomes too widespread, it’s no longer special.”

Brown segued into a related but more complex issue: if preserving farmland and an agricultural lifestyle are so important, who is going to pay for it?

Brown said it’s a question that should be at the forefront of public policy. He said farmland may have an aesthetic benefit, one that lures visitors to an area, which means the public benefits through tourism. In that case, the public should bear the cost of preserving the farmland, whether through tax breaks that shift more of the burden away from the farms or through the purchase of development rights that ensures the land remains in its present use.

Audience discussion touched on related topics, such as the practice of “present-use” taxation that values land for property tax purposes on its agricultural income rather than its development value. Brown said zoning was another option, but again it was a practice that imposed regulatory decisions on which parties bore the cost of the action.

If zoning inhibited farmers from developing their land, then they would be the ones bearing the cost, Brown said. He referred to potential income through sale of the land as an “opportunity cost,” meaning the landowner was passing up potential income from development to make undoubtedly less money through agricultural uses of the land.

The audience discussed ways European countries had addressed farm preservation. Higher food prices, coupled with tax breaks that discouraged farmers from selling their land, were noted as advantages to farmers, though they might incur penalties if they later sold their land for other uses after taking advantage of the tax breaks.

Brown said specialty crops might be a good way for small farmers to survive, and even thrive, saying some crops can be grown on smaller acreages. Taking advantage of the climate can also allow farmers to make the best income from their land, as well as adapting to local markets.


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