For many of us who live or work in the Mooresville area, farms are a passive part of the landscape – familiar scenes we pass regularly on our way from one place to another.
The planting, growth and harvesting of crops mark the seasons as certainly as a calendar.
At night, the distant bright lights illuminating livestock pens, silos and hulking barns is stark in contrast to the soft glow from farmhouse windows. “Who are the people inside?” we might even ask ourselves as we pass.
What we do know is that the number of farmers in Iredell County is dwindling, even as agriculture continues to drive the county’s economy.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s recently released industry census counted 1,055 Iredell farms in 2017, down from 1,203 in its previous tally in 2012. That’s a 14 percent drop.
Total farm acreage fell 12.5 percent, from 152,385 acres to 133,346, and the average size declined by one acre, to 126.
Despite the drop, farms still cover more than 36 percent of Iredell County.
And “cash gate receipts” related to Iredell agriculture increased 11.5 percent over the same period, from $130 million to nearly $145 million, said Nancy Keith, Iredell County’s N.C. Cooperative Extension director.
Declining profit margins
An exodus of dairy farmers is largely responsible for the dwindling number of farms, Keith said.
“Input costs have continued to rise while income has declined,” she said in explaining why farmers are leaving the business.
The alternatives for exiting farmers or their families who no longer want to carry on the tradition? Sell their property to other farmers, or to developers – especially in booming southern Iredell County, Keith said.
The allure of selling farmland for development is obvious. One of Iredell’s highest-valued non-commercial properties, according to this year’s countywide reassessment, is 72 acres of farmland near the intersection of Coddle Creek Highway and Kistler Farm Road. The property, owned for decades by the Harris family, is valued at more than $3 million, largely because of its suitability for residential development.
Adapting to demand
Many farmers who are sticking with the business have adapted to growing trends toward organic and environmentally friendly food products. That’s the case for Bradley Mills, a veterinarian and co-owner of the Mills Family Farm off U.S. 21, just north of Mooresville.
“Farm life has been in my family since 1935,” Mills told the Mooresville Citizen last year. “I wanted to create that same sustainability we had growing up. And today, the connections you make with those who are bringing food to your table is relevant now more than ever.”
Mills and his co-owner wife, Nicole, specialize in beef products but also offer other meats, such as pork and lamb. Much of their business comes from individual customers shopping for their families.
“I think people got really excited about the opportunity to purchase things online,” said Nicole Mills.
But she said many of her customers have expressed frustration with their experiences ordering from websites.
“They’re coming back to us,” Mills said. “They try it once, and they see the difference in quality and recognize the difference of seeing things first-hand than online. My sales are actually up because of this. That’s what I’m seeing.”
Nicole Mills reflects another trend in Iredell agriculture: more female farmers, who now make up nearly 47 percent of the county’s total.
By the numbers
Here are comparisons of Iredell agriculture in 2012 and 2017, according to census figures:
Farms with cropland: 882 in 2012, 804 in 2017 – down 8.8 percent.
Total farmland: 75,356 acres in 2012, 68,766 acres in 2017 – down 8.7 percent.
Harvested cropland: 70,383 in 2012, 61,586 in 2017 – down 12.5 percent.
Estimated value of farm land and buildings: $916.5 million in 2012, $725 million in 2017 – down nearly 21 percent.
Average value per farm: $761,847 in 2012, $687,281 in 2102 – down 9.8 percent.
In the barn
Here is a breakdown of other 2017 census statistics for Iredell:
Livestock and poultry farms: 624
Total cattle and calves: 44,341
Beef cows: 13,076
Milk cows: 10,769
Cattle and calves sold: 10,769
Hog and pig farms: 14
Hogs and pigs: 97
Hogs and pigs sold: 285
Farms with sheep, lambs: 30
Sheep and lambs: 511
In the fields
Farms growing corn for grain: 63, totaling 9,368 acres; 1.16 million bushels produced.
Farms growing corn for silage or green chop: 26, totaling 7,661 acres; 123,147 tons.
Farms growing wheat for grain: 24, totaling 5,127 acres; 271,165 bushels.
Farms growing oats for grain: 6, totaling 136 acres; 271,165 bushels.
Farms growing barley for grain: 6, totaling 565 acres; 32,497 bushels.
Farms producing sorghum for grain: 2, totaling 27 acres; 1,248 bushels.