Latest agricultural census shows increase in farms and direct sales of their products, especially in Hampshire County

The Daily Hampshire Gazette, May 14, 2014. By Rebecca Everett.

The latest agricultural census shows an increase in the number of farms and acres farmed in Hampshire and Franklin counties, as well as a boom in farm product sales in Hampshire County.

The 2012 Census of Agriculture reported that since the last census in 2007, there has been an 8.7 percent increase in the number of farms in the two counties, from 1,452 to 1,579, as well as an 8.7 percent increase in land in farming, from 132,221 to 143,723 acres.

Vegetable, potato and melon farms were among the types of farms that were growing, while the number of dairy farms and tobacco farms tumbled.

In terms of farm product sales in western Massachusetts, Hampshire County saw the greatest increase in the five-year period, up from $38 million to $49 million. That number remained about constant in Franklin County at $55 million.

Hampshire County also led the western Massachusetts counties in the growth of selling directly to consumers through farm stands, farmers markets and Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) operations. The number of farms selling direct jumped from 160 to 221, the number of CSA farms more than tripled from 20 to 67, and the value of direct sales for human consumption was up 34 percent, from $3.3 million to $4.45 million.

In Franklin County, farms using direct sales increased from 196 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.

Philip Korman, executive director of Community Involved in Sustaining Agriculture in South Deerfield, said Hampshire County’s growth in several areas is similar to the dramatic increase Franklin County saw from 2002 to 2007, as reported in the previous census.

“Franklin County has led the way and had a lot of its growth earlier,” Korman said. “They’ve already had their jump,” and now, Hampshire County is following suit, due partly to the success of direct sales.

Korman said that sales model requires farmers to do much more than in the past, when most just grew produce and sold it to wholesalers or retailers.

“We have really good farmers who are willing to expand their business skills,” he said. “We require so much from our farmers now. We don’t just want them to be incredibly intelligent about how they grow their products, we want them to greet us at the farmers market, we want them to write about farming in a blog.”

In addition to the rise in direct sales, Korman said the increase in agricultural sales is due partly to the growing number of retailers and restaurants that are buying and selling local produce and goods.

The number of farms making money from agritourism and recreational services in Hampshire County more than tripled from eight to 26, bringing in $220,000 compared to $68,000 in 2007. Franklin County saw the number of those farms climb from 16 to 28, and a 74 percent increase 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 number of vegetable, melon, potato and sweet potato farms in Hampshire and Franklin counties increased 30 percent, from 239 to 311 farms, compared to a statewide 41 percent increase to 1,428 vegetable farms.

Steady decline

Farms that declined significantly during the five-year period include tobacco farms and dairy farms.

The decline of dairy farms has been a trend for about 60 years, Korman said, and from 2007 to 2012 the state went from 258 to 147 dairy farms. Franklin County lost just over half of the 62 dairy farms it had in 2007 to end 2012 with 30. Hampshire County dairy farms dropped from 29 to 18 in the same period.

“It’s been a long, tough 60 years. More than 95 percent of the dairy farms in Massachusetts are gone,” he said. The main reason is that dairy farmers are paid by nationally set milk prices that do not reflect local production costs and milk supply, he said. Unless they can find creative ways to market their milk, such as selling their own brand, it is a hard way to make a living, Korman said.

“There is a lot of land held by dairy farms, and as we lose farms, that land becomes at risk” for development, he added.

Hampshire County, which has historically grown large-leaf tobacco for cigar wrappers, had 33 of the state’s 60 tobacco farms in 2007. In 2012, the number of tobacco farms in the county dropped to nine, a decrease of 73 percent. In Franklin County, tobacco farms numbered 13 in 2005, compared to five in 2012.

Korman said the decline may be related to the recession, since good cigars are a luxury. The tobacco market is known to be volatile and the farmer also has few options when it comes to getting a good price for a crop — a broker comes to look at the harvested crop and names a price.

Forest products

Hampshire and Franklin counties saw a greater percent decrease in the number of maple sugaring operations than the state, which declined 4.5 percent to 279, though they still have the most sugarhouses in the state. Franklin County operations were down 10 percent from 98 to 88 and Hampshire County lost 15 of the 70 sugarhouses it had in 2007, a 21 percent decrease.

For Franklin County, perhaps the biggest jump between 2007 and 2012 is a sixfold increase in sales of forest products from farming operations, not including Christmas trees or maple products. Sales jumped 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.”

In Hampshire County, the number of farms selling forest products increased from 35 to 99, but the sales from it showed a more modest increase from $316,000 to $325,000.

During the recession, marked by a decline in construction, forest-products companies were saddled with plenty of inventory, and a number 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 products harvesting. Now “things are leveling off,” said Gordon Boyce, marketing and utilization forester for the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation.

The figure includes cordwood sales from farmers’ woodlots, Boyce said. 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, the response rate varies from year to year and could be responsible for some of the variation, according to Gary Keough of the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The census also showed that farmland accounted for 16 percent of Hampshire County’s total acreage in 2007 and 2012, while that percentage increased from 17.7 to 20.1 percent in Franklin County. The average farm size in Franklin County grew slightly between 2007 and 2012, from 107 to 115 acres, while it declined in Hampshire County from 74 acres to 68.

In Hampshire and Franklin counties, most farms are moderately sized, including 561 that are between 10 and 49 acres and 467 between 50 and 179 acres. Small farms up to nine acres number 323, and there are 228 larger farms of over 180 acres.