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Farming still king in Georgia

Farming is still the biggest industry in Georgia, although the number of farms has dropped and farmers are getting older without being replaced by a new generation, according to statistics from the Census of Agriculture released Wednesday.

The census, based on detailed surveys of farmers, is taken every five years and attempts to measure changes in land use and ownership, characteristics of farmers, production practices, income and expenses. The data, which can be broken down by county, covers 2002 through 2007.

Georgia is one of 11 states losing farms, with a 3 percent drop to 47,846. The decrease translates to a loss of about 293 farms per year.

The national trend is the opposite, with 4 percent more farms than in 2002, said Doug Kleweno, state director for Georgia agricultural statistics.

Most losses occur among mid-sized family farms, while small farm operations are growing in number, Kleweno said. This category of farm produces crops valued at $2,500 or less, much less than the traditional Georgia farm that many might picture, he said.

“What’s less than $2,500 is almost hobby farming,” said Greg Slaughter, Dodge County extension agent.

More than 5 percent of Georgia’s farmland went out of production since 2002, mostly because of development in the 25 counties that make up metro Atlanta, Kleweno said.

But even in areas around smaller cities such as Macon, the value of farmland increased, with statewide farmland prices basically doubling in the last 10 years, Kleweno said.

That makes paying taxes and keeping land in farms tougher.

Several trends continued. The average age of farmers keeps climbing, and increasing numbers of them must work another job off the farm to make ends meet. Fifty-eight percent actually work full time off the farm.

Slaughter said this trend is evident in Dodge County. Some farmers operate heavy equipment or drive trucks during the off-season, he said.

Farmers are getting older, with more than 8,000 in the state over age 65 and less than 1,000 age 34 or younger.

Clegg Griggs, 31, is among that select group. He works on a farm owned by his father and uncle in exchange for the use of their equipment on 550 acres that he leases to farm on his own. A new cotton picker alone would cost him $300,000 if he had to start from scratch.

“That is a tremendous opportunity they seem to be giving me, and I am going to use it,” said Griggs, who resisted the agribusiness jobs his college adviser tried to steer him toward.

“I hope to continue farming. I just wish it weren’t so stressful,” said Griggs, who has two children and a third on the way.

Among younger farmers, Griggs’ experience is typical.

“Through family is about the only way to get into farming today,” Slaughter said. “You’re talking $1 million to start up to become a small farmer.”

Chuck Ellis, Dooly County cooperative extension agent, said the county seems to support more young farmers than the state’s average. At a cotton growers’ meeting this week, he estimated that at least a third of the farmers were under 50. Big and medium-sized family farms remain prevalent.

That’s not the only way in which Dooly County has bucked state trends. Extension agents in Dodge and Dooly counties say farm sizes seem to be increasing there, and farm acreage is stable.

Georgia’s historic drought, as well as rising fuel prices that have affected the whole country, have contributed to an uptick in farm costs (up 56 percent) that outstripped the value of crops produced (up 45 percent). Gas costs doubled.

Some farmers have found creative ways to offset those expenses by using agri-tourism, ranging from hunting leases to corn mazes. The average farm that participates in agri-tourism earned about $24,300 in 2007, triple the amount in 2002, Kleweno said.

Direct marketing to the consumer, cutting out the middleman, also is growing in popularity, with businesses such as Dooly County’s Ellis Brothers Pecans. Farmers are selling more of their produce at roadside stands or farmers’ markets, Kleweno said.

Direct marketing of agricultural products in 2007 totaled $13.1 million dollars compared to $8.96 million in 2002, the census showed.

Government payments to Georgia farmers increased by 89 percent between the 2002 and 2007 census, Kleweno said. Those include direct crop subsidies, drought assistance and payments for using practices that conserve soil and protect wildlife.

Georgia remains first nationally in the production of peanuts, pecans, eggs, broiler chickens and quail stock, according to the census.

Dairy farms, once a staple of the counties north of Macon, dropped by almost a quarter since 2002, Kleweno said.

To learn details for Middle Georgia counties, visit www.agcensus.usda.gov.

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