Profiting by finding a niche

U.S. statistics confirm what many in Howard County already know: Farms are becoming smaller, part-time operations and less land is used for traditional agricultural purposes.

July 20, 2004|By Sandy Alexander | Sandy Alexander,SUN STAFF

In Howard County, traditional farms with their rolling fields of grain, rows of vegetables and herds of cattle are making room for smaller operations aiming for niche markets.

More than 64 percent of farms in Howard County were 49 acres or smaller in 2002, according to the latest U.S. Department of Agriculture census. Animal production -- including raising goats, rabbits, bison, llamas and horses -- has become the most prevalent type of farm, bumping beef cattle from the top spot.

"One of the things we're learning to accept in agriculture is there are a lot of part-time people and being part time isn't bad," said Ginger S. Myers, agriculture economic development specialist with the Howard County Economic Development Authority.

Myers said many people are finding that an off-farm job provides needed income and affordable health care while they pursue more specialized agricultural ventures. A smaller farm also requires less costs for equipment and labor.

The USDA released the county-level statistics from its 2002 census of agriculture this summer, confirming several trends that county leaders have noticed in the past decade.

The census found 346 farms in Howard County on 37,582 acres after sending surveys to operations with sales, or the potential for sales, of at least $1,000 for the year.

Compared to adjusted figures for 1997, the number of farms decreased 6 percent, the department reported, and the number of acres being used for farming dropped 9 percent.

However, the survey found the market value of agricultural products to be $21.7 million, an increase of 10 percent over 1997.

"Folks here have made a commitment to stay in agriculture and look at those type of enterprises that fit in with development," Myers said.

Grain production continues to use the largest portion of cropland with 13,338 acres, but it is no longer in the top five types of farms. Beef farming -- previously the most prevalent -- came in at number four, behind other animal production, other crops and hay, the census said.

Horse farms, meanwhile, have been booming in the county.

In some cases, "bigger farms are getting [sold and] chopped up," said Tracy McKenna, managing editor of The Equiery, a horse publication based in Lisbon. With the sale of just a few horses or the income from a year of boarding, it is also possible to meet state and county requirements -- including a gross income of $2,500 -- for tax benefits, she said.

Kristen Willie, 20, started a business boarding horses and offering riding lessons on her family's 52-acre farm in Mt. Airy a year and a half ago.

She said her family moved to the location from Glenwood in 2001, after years of her and her brother caring for animals at other farms for 4-H projects. She also made the move because she had to board her horses elsewhere.

The farm has some cattle, pigs and sheep, which the family lends to 4-H participants.

"My parents were nice enough to give me the opportunity to build a stable ... [to] let me have my horses there and start my own boarding facility," said Willie, who also goes to other farms to exercise horses and attends Howard Community College.

She said she earns enough money to care for her five horses and show them at competitions on the East Coast.

Diane Brown has found emu farming to be an affordable, profitable and manageable business on the 24-acre family farm she grew up on in Highland.

"We very much recommend emus for small lots," said Brown, owner of Carlhaven Emu Farm.

She explained they need a six-foot fence, some room to run, a three-sided shelter and don't require veterinary care. The sale of emu meat, eggs, oil and leather brings in an income to supplement her husband's career as a computer engineer, she said.

Brown also said that her brother started using another part of the farm this year to grow vegetables using organic methods.

Many farmers are looking at such niche markets, using direct marketing at farmer's markets, roadside stands and subscription programs to increase the amount they make on their products.

That is important in Howard, where housing development is putting pressure on all farms, said Philip Jones, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau.

"I don't think any farm that is not in farmland preservation can make enough profit to be as profitable as housing prices," Jones said.

He said dairy farms like his were the dominant type of farm in the county until the 1980s. Now only a few dairy operations remain.

Jones said he has noticed the increase in pleasure horses, which in turn help support hay crops. Pick-your-own orchards and agritourism businesses, such as petting farms and pumpkins patches, also seem to be doing well.

Plus, he said, the agricultural industries that serve development, such as sod farms, greenhouses and nurseries, have been growing. The USDA survey said such businesses brought in $11.5 million in income in 2002.

Overall, Jones said, a good amount of land remains in agricultural preservation programs, ensuring the future of farming in the county.

"We're holding our own," he said.

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