On Wednesday I had the honor of attending a luncheon honoring small farmers and recognizing Ryan Wiebe of Burnsville in Yancey County, who was named N.C. Small Farmer of the Year.
Agriculture is big business in our state. It is our No. 1 industry with an economic impact of $77 billion. It also employs almost a fifth of our state’s workforce. Agriculture is a growing business in our state, and the research and innovation that comes from our universities and our farmers annually keeps us growing. As a matter of fact, I think agriculture in our state can easily be a $100 billion industry in the near future.
Our big agriculture industry has its roots firmly grounded in small farms. Eighty-seven percent of all farms across the state fall into this category. It may be the farmer that just grows enough vegetables to sell at a roadside stand, or the family farm trying to grow an organics business, or a small farmer that may be small right now, but has big dreams for the future.
Small farms are farms with an income of less than $250,000 a year. There are about 43,000 small-scale farmers in our state. The N.C. Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services supports small farms through consultations, grants and marketing assistance.
The 2007 Census of Agriculture showed that small farms contribute about 15 percent of our food and fiber but account for about 48 percent of total farmland. This means small farms have a very important role in conservation, too.
Our Small Farms Office works closely with farmers, particularly minority or under-served farmers, to link them with a cost-share service offered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resource Conservation Service. This service pays 50 to 90 percent of conservation improvements at farms, including high tunnels, irrigation systems and installed wells.
This year’s Small Farms theme is Innovations for the Next Generation. The average age of a farmer in our state is 58.9, which is slightly higher than the national average. This age is troublesome to me because I worry that young people aren’t drawn to agriculture as a career option. But this month I have had the opportunity to meet with the state officers of FFA and third-graders at General Greene Elementary in Greensboro. Next week I have the opportunity to speak to Park Scholars at N.C. State University about sustainable farming and genetic engineering. When visiting with students, I am always impressed that these bright young minds are interested in agriculture and where our food comes from. It’s our job to encourage and support our young people with an interest in continuing to grow North Carolina’s leading industry.
Agriculture is difficult work, but it’s also rewarding. It’s satisfying to know that you grow the food that feeds someone else. And with the world’s population continuing to grow exponentially, you are likely not just feeding your neighbors; you may be feeding people around the world. There is something very satisfying about that.
The work we do with small farms is very production- and marketing-focused. We can all do our part of support small farms by choosing to buy local and support a small farmer. Many of these farmers are set up weekly at one of the farmers markets across the state. This would include the four markets operated by the department in Asheville, Charlotte, Greensboro and Raleigh, as well as about 200 others across the state. I encourage you to check one out.