Agricultural census: County farm business booming

The Recorder, May 14, 2014. By Richie Davis.

The latest agricultural census shows a continuing rise in the number of farms, along with acres farmed, in Franklin County.

Not surprisingly, the average farm size has also increased as well.

The 2012 Census of Agriculture shows that over the past five years there’s been a 5 percent increase in the number of farms, to 780 overall, with a 13 percent increase in land in farms, to nearly 90,000 acres.

Seen from a broader perspective, the number of Franklin County farms grew by 33 percent over the decade from 2002 to 2012, with a corresponding 21 percent increase in farmed land over that decade.

Direct sales of farm goods — through farmstands, farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture operations — continued to show an increase, from 196 farms to 241 farms in 2012, involving over 70 percent more farms than a decade earlier, although the value of those products remained constant, at $3.4 million.

Franklin County’s growth across many sectors slowed from what the 2007 census showed, said Philip Korman, executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture, compared to the dramatic increases in Hampshire County and more modest smaller increases in Hampden County.

“Franklin County has led the way and had a lot of its growth earlier,” Korman said. “Across the three counties, the picture is good against the backdrop of the greatest recession since the Great Depression.”

Perhaps the biggest jump between 2007 and 2012, the new Census showed, is a sixfold increase in sales of forest products from farming operations, from $285,000 to $1.9 million, representing 98 farms, contrasted with 65 in 2007.

“Things are certainly doing better in forest sales since the turnaround in the economy,” said Korman. “But I’m surprised there’s that big a jump in Franklin County.”

During the recession, marked by a decline in construction, forest products companies were saddled with plenty of inventory, and a number of forest products companies went out of business. But when the economy began to turn around a couple of years ago, there was little backup inventory available and a lot of demand, which increased product harvesting. Now, Boyce said, “Things are leveling off.”

The figure includes cord wood sales from farmers’ woodlots, said Gordon Boyce, marketing and utilization forester for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. The use of wood as a primary heat source has more than doubled over the past seven years in Massachusetts, with “chunk” wood — as opposed to pellets — representing 82 percent of the wood burned in homes, he said.

Also, since the census data is based on voluntary National Agricultural Statistics Service reports, based on information the agency receives from farmers, the response rate varies from year to year and could be responsible for some of the variation, according to Gary Keough of the Statistics Service.

Agritourism and recreational services also show an increase in Franklin County both in the near doubling of farms, to 28, and in a 74 percent hike in income, totaling $396,000.

“Statewide, we saw a huge increase in agritourism, an almost 130 percent increase,” said Catherine DeRonde, an economist with the state Department of Food and Agriculture, who said the trend covers everything from corn mazes and hayrides to people visiting farms on the state Wine and Cheese Trail.

The average farm size grew slightly between 2007 and 2012, from 107 to 115 acres, with Franklin County’s farms now accounting for 20.1 percent of land area. Yet harvested cropland, a total of 18,679 acres, is down from the 20,132 acres in 2007 — a difference that DeRonde said is not necessarily significant.

The census also showed a 7 percent increase in the number of farm operators, 1,303, of which 43 percent are women — also an increase.

The percentage of operators whose primary occupation is farming is 57 percent, 10 percent more than in 2007.

The value of farm products sold in Franklin County remained about constant, at $55 million, although the per-farm average declined from $76,712 to $70,584 and the total gross farm-related income more than doubled, from $3 million to $6.7 million.

There was a decline in sales from livestock, poultry and their products, from $1.6 million to $1.4 million between 2007 and 2012, which DeRonde said was consistent with a trend statewide, probably as a result of high feed prices that increased the cost of production and caused a shift away from livestock toward vegetable production.

One area that did see a significant decrease was in state and local government payments to farms, which fell from $581,000 in 2007 to $160,000 in 2012. Statewide, those funds fell from about $2 million to about $1.5 million, which Keough said may have been attributable in part to a decline in supplemental payments to dairy farmers, who saw prices increase instead.

While 133 Franklin County farms are under 10 acres and 120 farms are between 180 and 499 acres, the vast majority are moderate-sized operations — 252 of them between 10 and 49 acres, with 249 farms between 50 and 179 acres.

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The Recorder, May 14, 2014. By Richie Davis. The latest agricultural census shows a continuing rise in the number of farms, along with acres farmed, in Franklin County.