The numbers from the latest five-year census by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which captured data through February 2018, offer more evidence of the ongoing transition — painful at times — for farming in Lancaster County. “Poultry has dethroned dairy, and the growing gap may already be reshaping the landscape, as in smaller farms with more greenhouses,” LNP’s Jeff Hawkes wrote in last weekend’s Sunday LNP. Hawkes reported that the new census numbers also show a significant overall loss in the number of farms and amount of farmland in Lancaster County; some local officials disputed the extent of those losses.
“Farming has never been for the faint of heart,” Hawkes writes. Indeed, the vital, noble profession of providing sustenance for our nation has always been accompanied by more headaches than accolades.
And the latest data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture provided some insight into the newest challenges faced by county farmers.
It is an industry in transition. But also an industry rising to write a new chapter.
“There is no reason, yet, for doom and gloom,” Hawkes notes. The census, he writes, shows that “net cash farm income” in Lancaster County grew by 33% to $478.7 million. And the average per-farm income was $93,709 — an increase of 47.4% since the last census. Those are heartening figures. But the per-farm income hike came in conjunction with a notable drop in total Lancaster County farms.
About those numbers: The census finds that Lancaster County has lost 549 farms, a decline of nearly 10%, since the 2012 report. Its numbers also say that the land here devoted to farming has fallen by more than 45,000 acres, a decline of just over 10%. Those figures, however, drew pushback from officials at Lancaster Farmland Trust and the Lancaster County Planning Commission. The Lancaster Farmland Trust believes that farmland losses here have been only about 1,200 acres per year over the past half-decade, “far below the 9,100 acres a year the census documented,” Hawkes writes.
Whatever the numbers, there’s no argument that it’s more difficult to make a family or small-business farm profitable in the 21st century. And that could be at the heart of why some are abandoning agriculture and/or selling their land to developers. It’s not hard to see why some want out. Philip Gruber of Lancaster Farming notes that “nationwide, the largest 1% of farms make 35% of sales, while the smallest three-quarters make just 3% of sales.”
All of agriculture must adapt to the changing wishes of consumers, who these days want to know more about how their food is produced and want to mold products to their specific desires. Many longtime farmers aren’t used to that level of interaction. They’re producers, not marketers. And so these headwinds will pit the most innovative producers against those who want to do the same old, same old.
The type of farming that’s been taking the biggest hit — here and nationwide — is dairy. LNP’s Ad Crable wrote last year of “the long, proud tradition of Lancaster County as the state’s dairy capital” suffering from a multiyear downward spiral in milk prices. He noted that “the exits are expected to be mainly by younger dairy farmers and those renting farms who don’t have the equity built up to weather the storm any longer.”
The new census figures emphasize this challenge for dairy. The value of milk sold has fallen by 2.6% since 2012. The number of Lancaster County farms with cows is down 14.1% since 2012. And struggling dairy farmers, Hawkes notes, “also face the same challenges as other farmers: more regulation, rising property taxes, manpower shortages and higher prices for machinery and land.”
Joining dairy in this downturn, per the census data, are corn and soybeans.
And so “adapt or perish” becomes a necessary mantra. Or, to be more specific, “diversify or perish.” Locally, some farmers are changing gears or diversifying with eggs, organic vegetables, meat goats and the fledgling market for industrial hemp.
Chicken farming, specifically, is a promising area of expansion for local agriculture, though the cost of startup infrastructure can be daunting. “Sales of poultry and eggs (have) surged by 23.8% to $580.6 million since 2012,” Hawkes writes of the census data, adding, “Lancaster County sold 55.6 million broilers in 2017, up 3.8%.”
Regarding industrial hemp, LNP’s Heather Stauffer noted in January that the state Department of Agriculture is allowing more opportunities and loosening restrictions on growing that crop commercially. Industrial hemp could become a $20 billion industry nationally by 2022 now that it’s been legalized — though in a strictly regulated fashion — by the federal government. (The cultivation of industrial hemp was banned nationally in 1937 because of its similarity to marijuana — though hemp has only minuscule amounts of the psychoactive properties for which marijuana is known — until the federal farm bills in 2014 and then 2018 paved the way for research programs and then commercial growing, respectively.) Industrial hemp is used in textiles, paper, foods, beverages and other products, and its emergence as a crop could help area farmers diversify their bottom lines.
We appreciate those who focus on helping farmers through this transition. We found plenty to cheer in the federal farm bill, including money for the promotion of farmers markets, organic produce research, farm subsidies and crop insurance (especially crucial in the wake of last year’s record rainfall and soggy fields in Lancaster County). It is also good to have Harrisburg lawmakers such as Republican House Majority Leader Bryan Cutler, of Peach Bottom, on our side. He has spoken about the need to reform the agricultural permitting process to help farmers who wish to shift more easily to other crops or livestock.
All of this help is welcome, though none of it makes the choices our farmers face easier.
But resiliency is in their nature.
“Agriculture has been here before,” George Cook, a Lancaster attorney with expertise in farming issues, told Hawkes.
“The early 1980s was another difficult time, but ... the work ethic is strong in our county.”
Indeed it is.