Census reports more farms in area, fewer farmers

February 02, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

The number of full-time farmers in the Tri-State area declined by about 8 percent between 1992 and 1997 even as the number of farms rose, according to farm census information released Monday.

The 1997 Agriculture Census, which was conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, showed an increase in the number of large and very small farms in the seven-county region.

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There were 2,893 farms of between 10 and 179 acres in the region in 1997, down slightly from five years before.

Washington County Agricultural Extension Agent Don Schwartz said a medium-sized farm is not as likely as it once was to be passed on to a farmer's children intact.


"It's much more likely to be absorbed into a larger farm," he said.

The number of farms in Washington and Frederick counties declined from 1992 to 1997 but the average size of farms increased, according to the farm census.

Schwartz said many farms have had to grow in order to gain the efficiency and economies of scale needed to remain viable in an increasingly competitive industry.

Farmers also are turning to jobs off the farm to make ends meet. Farming was the principal occupation of about 53 percent of the Tri-State area's farmers, down from 58 percent in 1992.

"They're almost required to work off the farm to make the farm go," said Bill Bennett, executive director of the U.S. Farm Service Agency for Berkeley and Morgan counties in West Virginia.

Nationwide, the Agriculture Census showed the erosion of farmland has largely leveled off. The U.S. Department of Agriculture counted more than 1.9 million farms in 1997, slightly less than the 1992 figure. But the size of those farms is changing.

"Overall, there's still a trend toward consolidation," said Joe Reilly, director of the Census Division of the National Agriculture Statistics Service.

Reilly said the number of tiny farms also has increased. These are farms that are smaller than 10 acres and usually are run by part-time farmers.

The federal government's definition of a farm, which has not changed since 1974, is any operation that sells $1,000 or more in agriculture products a year.

"One horse, one sale, and you're a farmer," Reilly said.

Reilly said the department estimated that the Agriculture Census missed about 200,000 such farms in its count.

"They're so small that they don't consider themselves farms," he said.

Reilly said many city dwellers have bought land in the country and farm a few acres, even though it is not their primary job.

That could be one of the reasons Jefferson and Berkeley counties in West Virginia, a popular destination for migrating Washington, D.C.-area residents, showed an increase in the number of farms even as the amount of farmland decreased.

"We have a lot of people coming in with 10, 14 acres," said Mary Beth Bennett, Berkeley County agricultural extension agent.

Farming on the side can mean significant tax savings for people.

Berkeley County Tax Assessor Mearle Spickler said lower taxes are available to property owners who produce a small amount of farm products - at least $500 a year for a property smaller than 5 acres and $1,000 for a larger farm.

"West Virginia has made it relatively easy to be a farmer," Spickler said.

In Franklin and Fulton counties in Pennsylvania, the number of farms is also on the rise.

Franklin County Agricultural Extension Agent Philip Wagner said part of the increase is the result of family farms being divided into smaller farms.

In many cases, though, the resulting farms are run by retired farmers' children who also have full-time jobs off the farm.

"That's been a growth area here in parts of Franklin County," he said.

Spouses of full-time farmers often get full-time jobs off the farm to help out, Wagner said. It is especially helpful when a spouse can get a job that provides health insurance for the family, he said.

Despite the increasing number of farms, Wagner said many are properties that produce a small amount of crops.

He said the Penn State University Extension Service recently hired an agent to work with that category of farmers in Franklin, Cumberland and Adams counties.

"But when it comes to actual full-fledged, commercial operations, the ones that are really grinding out the products, that number continues to go down," he said.

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