By Rochelle Sparko, CFSA Policy Director & Matt Kneece, CFSA SC Policy Coordinator | Tuesday, July 16, 2019 – 

Woman looking up

The National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) sets the standard in collecting and publishing data about agriculture. Every five years, NASS (a part of USDA) conducts the census of agriculture by mailing out and collecting thousands of surveys covering nearly every aspect of U.S. agriculture. It’s hard to overstate the importance of NASS’ Census of Agriculture. The data collected has a strong influence on agriculture policy in the U.S.

There’s a LOT of data in the 2017 Census of Agriculture. Given CFSA’s focus on the Carolinas, we combed through the census for an up-to-date picture of what agriculture at the state level looks like and want to share some of our key findings. Read on to learn who is farming, which types of farms we’re gaining and losing, and what we think are some of the high and lowlights for local food systems. If you want to dig into the data yourself, it’s all publicly available here.


South Carolina

As renowned entrepreneur and philanthropist Bill Gates once said, “Innovations that are guided by smallholder farms, adapted to local circumstances and sustainable for the environment and the economy, will be necessary to ensure food safety in the future.” When we look at the latest data for South Carolina, a number of promising trends start to emerge for the future of local, organic farming in the Palmetto State.

According to the NASS’ 2017 census data:

  • The overall number of farms in South Carolina dropped by 1.8%.
  • The number of small farms continues to grow.
    • The number of farms of 49 acres or fewer has jumped from 11,130 in 2012 to almost 12,400 in 2017.
  • When we look at the average market value of agricultural products sold from small farms, interesting trends emerge.
    • 1-9 acre-farms: The average market value of products sold dropped $4859 (from $22,456 in 2012 to $17,597 in 2017).
    • 10-49 acre-farms, however, saw an average increase of $6,341 (from $37,382 to $43,723 in the same years).

We think it’s possible that slightly larger farms are able to better capitalize on expanded market opportunities to serve wholesale markets and restaurant buyers, accounting for the increase in the value of products sold on larger small farms.

While the overall number of farms in South Carolina dropped by 1.8%, the number of small farms continues to grow.

The 2017 survey brought changes to the way NASS asked demographic questions and collected data. For example, the term “operators,” utilized in 2012, was replaced with “producers” for the 2017 survey. Producers, NASS explains, are any person who is involved in making decisions for the farm operation, and that includes things like bookkeeping, planting, harvesting, marketing and more. Essentially, the recent change allows NASS to count multiple producers (as opposed to a single operator), NASS considers more people to be farmers, increasing the overall number of farmers, and helps account for a sharp increase in the number of female farmers nationally and in SC. South Carolina boasts 2,950 more women farmers now than it had five years ago (up from 10,592 in 2012 to 13,542 in 2017). This increase of 27% mirrors the national increase of 26.6%.

The number of new and beginning farmers rose to 11,323, up from 8,315 in 2012. While there may be lots more beginning farmers in SC, this 36% jump is likely inflated by the above-described changes NASS’ data collection methodology. Counting multiple “producers” on each farm rather than a more restrictively defined “operator” means that NASS is counting more beginning farmers. That said, this new data shows that better than one in four producers in South Carolina is now a beginning farmer with ten years or fewer of experience. This is a hopeful trend, that could help see SC through as older farmers retire. It also means that it’s a wonderful time for SC to invest in ways to keep these new farmers on their land and in business. Across the country, many beginning farmers get in and get out of the businesses in fewer than 10 years.

South Carolina boasts 2,950 more women farmers now than it had five years ago

We also see real progress in the number of certified USDA Organic farms—up 50% and includes 48 farms statewide. The number of organic farms with sales of more than $50,000 has also grown by leaps and bounds, increasing from a mere two in 2012 to 13 in 2017.

This data really is an important tool in providing a snapshot of the overall farm community in South Carolina, and moving forward, will be priceless in monitoring the growth of local, organic farming.

North Carolina

In North Carolina, we see trends in that worry and give us hope. North Carolina is still a big ag state. Did you know that agriculture is North Carolina’s largest economic driver? With over 46,000 farms, it’s not a big surprise that North Carolina’s economy is heavily influenced by agriculture. But those 46,000+ farms are far fewer than we had during the last NASS survey in 2012. North Carolina lost 4,000 farms in the last five years, nearly 9% of farms. At the same time, North Carolina saw a slight uptick in the number of acres being farmed. Is this a worrying trend, or a hopeful one? Let’s dig a little deeper into the data.

North Carolina lost 4,000 farms in the last five years, nearly 9% of farms.

Half of the net farm loss happened in the middle—we lost nearly 2,000 farms sized between 50-500 acres and nearly 3,000 farms between 10-50 acres. During the same period, North Carolina added really big and really small farms. North Carolina saw a net increase of nearly 1000 farms of fewer than 10 acres and a net gain of 54 farms of more than 1000 acres.

Farms in the middle are the best positioned to meet consumer demand for local food at retail outlets like grocery stores, school cafeterias, hospitals, and college dining halls. And, likely as a result of the decline in mid-scale farms, North Carolina has 58% fewer farms selling local food to retail outlets. In 2012, North Carolina was ranked fifth in the nation for the number of farms selling wholesale, with over 2,000 farms reporting such sales. In 2017, only 925 farms reported selling food wholesale, making us 10th in the nation.

Federal, state, and local policies frequently favor large, well-established farms over mid-scale farms, so we’re not surprised that the number of farms selling local food to institutional buyers dropped. Mid-scale farms meet a needed niche in the local food economy–they are large enough to supply institutional buyers like hospitals, schools and grocery stores, and small enough that they need the additional money they can get from selling farm-identified food (we all know that there are people who will pay more for a tomato with the farmer’s picture on it, or for meat that we know comes from a farmer we trust). We’re committed to using this data to demonstrate to policymakers the impact their decisions have on mid-sized farms.

The number of organic farms have increased by 83%–184, from 220 to 404.

Organic agriculture is a relatively bright spot in the agriculture sector and continues to grow in North Carolina.

  • Since 2012, the number of organic farms have increased by 83%–184, from 220 to 404.
  • The number of farms with organic sales of over $50,000 increased by 192, a 457% increase (from 42 to 234).
  • Organic farmers are, on average, six years younger than the average North Carolina farmer.
  • The increase in the number of organic farms doesn’t appear to be slowing down. In 2012, there were 72 farms transitioning their land to organic production. In 2017, there were 87 farms.

North Carolina saw a decrease in the racial diversity of farmers.

  • 100 fewer farmers identify as black/African American (2,041 in 2017, down from 2,141 in 2012).
  • There are also fewer Latino farmers (769 farmers identified as Latino in 2017, down from 795 farmers in 2012).
  • 95 fewer Native American farmers (840 farmers identified as Native American in 2012, while only 745 so identified in 2017).
  • Meanwhile, about 1000 more farmers identified as white on the 2017 census.

What about women farmers? There’s been a lot of buzz among the folks that find the census fascinating because the data shows a sharp increase in the number of women farmers. However, the way the census asked about a farmer’s gender changed between 2012 and 2017and makes comparing numbers like comparing snap peas and crowder peas! We’re glad to see the USDA counting the many ways people contribute to running a farm and think that the 2017 census provides us with a more meaningful baseline to observe trends going forward.

The 2017 census shows us that Carolina farms are not immune to national trends. Politicians, researchers, corporations, and others notice these trends and are adjusting their short and long term plans to ensure they’re meeting the needs of farms. Which means that those of us who support a local, organic food supply that is good for farmers, farmworkers, the environment, and for communities, have our work cut out for us. We encourage you to join us to make sure policies, scientific research, and corporations that provide goods and services to farmers know what farmers who share our values actually need.

As more and more people explore local, organic farming as a way of life, CFSA will continue to build the systems that Carolina farms need not just to survive but thrive. From GAP training to high tunnel consulting and organic certification assistance, CFSA stands at the ready to help farmers from all walks of life succeed.


What can you do?

To ensure that CFSA can fight against worrying trends in agriculture, and support farmers who are doing well, CFSA relies on a robust, engaged membership.

Join CFSA today and sign-up for our action alerts, which are email prompts on how you can take action on various local, state, and federal level issues.

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