County sees hike in farms
Windham County saw an 8 percent increase in the number of farms in the last five years, with 428 farms recorded in 2007 compared with 397 in 2002.
Statewide, during the same period, the number of farms jumped from 6,571 to 6,984, a more than 6 percent increase.
The total acres in production dropped from 1.25 million acres to 1.23 million. But Vermont at the same time increased the number of acres under organic production and the amount of money received from direct markets like roadside stands, community supported agriculture, farmers markets and agritourism also went up.
And while the number of dairy farms continues to decline, experts across New England say that the latest census numbers show a strong and stable agriculture industry in Vermont that is poised to meet a growing demand for locally produced food.
"We're seeing a great deal more focus on people who want to know where their food comes from and more young people are getting into farming because they want to be a part of that," said Vermont Secretary of Agriculture Roger Allbee on the latest farm census. "It is encouraging."
The USDA Census of Agriculture is conducted every five years and it is the most comprehensive account of agriculture statistics from every county in the country.
While the number of farms in Vermont increased, the average farm size dipped about 7 percent, from 189 to 177 acres.
The data show that while Vermont agriculture traditionally was made up of dairy farms, farmers are now exploring new markets and increasing production year round with maple, timber and hot house operations.
"This information confirms what we have been seeing," Allbee said. "There is greater diversification. When you go to farmers' markets they are piping with diversification. We've got a lot of innovation taking place."
Dairy continues to make up a big chunk of the state's agriculture business but Northeast dairy farmers are struggling to survive in the national market.
Over the past 15 years, the number of dairy farms in Vermont dropped from 1,995 in 1997 to 1,219 in the 2007 census.
The commodity pricing system for milk is outdated and unfair to smaller New England farmers, Allbee said, but at the same time the increasing demand for local and organic milk in larger Northeast cities is creating a new demand that Vermont farmers should be able to meet.
According to Gary Keough, director of the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service New England field office, Vermont farmers are benefiting from the increasing opportunity to sell their own produce.
Sales from direct market and agritourism almost doubled between 2002 and 2007, and those sales now make up 3.6 percent of all agriculture purchases in the state.
The number of farms selling direct to the consumer increased from 1,163 to 1,474 between the two most recent counts.
Addison County is 20th in direct market sales across the country while Windham County is 154th of the more than 3,100 counties in the country.
"More farms are selling direct to the public and it is adding income to the producers," he said. "Farmers are selling direct because there is a demand for it and as the demand increases farmers will be selling direct more often."
Keough said the new census numbers prove that farming in Vermont is changing and getting stronger.
"Anytime you have an increase in the number of operations, you have an opportunity for the potential of more growth," Keough said. "You have people who want to be in farming right now."
University of Vermont Extension fruit and berry specialist Vern Grubinger said the latest numbers paint a very positive picture of the state of farming in Windham County.
Windham County produced the second highest amount of apples in the state and came in fourth in vegetables harvested.
"Agriculture is alive and kicking," said Grubinger. "If you are suited for the job, it is a great time to get into agriculture."
Grubinger said southern Vermont has been a leader in promoting local food, supporting food co-ops and farmers' markets and experimenting with CSAs, winter markets and value added products.
"We have a great group of farmers down here," he said. "This is definitely one of the hot spots."
Some of the statistics in the census did highlight challenging trends of farming in Vermont.
The average age of a Vermont farmer inched up from 53.9 years in 2002 to 56.5 in 2007.
The price of land continues to climb, as well, and expenses also went up.
Still Grubinger said that while the census for years showed little more than depressed numbers in the state's dairy industry, the 2007 count proves that farming is transforming and Vermont farmers are changing the way they do business to meet the demands of a new market.
The number of vegetable farms in Vermont shot up 20 percent between 2002 and 2007 and the sales from those farms rose 30 percent.
"The fact that farm numbers are up is again reflective of the growth of diversified agriculture," Grubinger said. "There are some concerns but things are real positive. Now the whole point is to nurture farmers who are trying new things and see which ones bear fruit. It's very hopeful."
The complete state and national reports are at the USDA Web site: www.usda.gov. Click on "2007 Census."
Howard Weiss-Tisman can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 279.
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