By: Bryant Spivey
Johnston County Extension Director
Johnston County is very unique among North Carolina counties because it is one of the fastest growing counties from a population standpoint while continuing to be a leader in agricultural production. The US Census documented a Johnston County population of 168,878 in 2010 and projected the population at 191,450 in 2016. Some estimates put our county population crossing the 200,000 mark sometime between 2017 and 2019 and this seems quite reasonable, especially if you travel around Archer Lodge, Clayton, Cleveland, and McGee’s Crossroads.
In spite of the tremendous population growth that we are witnessing each day, our county continues to enjoy a robust agricultural economy. The Interstate 95 corridor in Central North Carolina is the center of tobacco and sweet potato production in the United States, and according to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, our county ranks 8th among NC counties in farm income.
The shocking thing for many is that the county’s agricultural income has enjoyed an increasing trend since the 2007 agricultural census in spite of a weak general economy during that same period.
Now, it is very true that the agricultural economy has been weaker during 2015-2017 and farmers definitely recognize this fact in their bottom line. Like the general economy, the agricultural economy is cyclical with both stronger and weaker periods. However, the cycle is generally opposite of the cycle in the general economy. It really makes sense if you think about how commodities and their movement in the market greatly influence the strength of agriculture.
We grow publicly traded commodities like corn, soybean, wheat, cotton, hogs, and cattle. I am not an economist, but the economics of supply and demand influence the prices of these commodities and the prices that growers receive. As commodity prices increase, farmers can market their products at a greater price and hopefully a greater return. Commodity prices increase when there is high demand and short supply.
There is no place that this is more evident to most of us than at the gas pump. When crude oil was high, gas was high and so were corn, soybeans, etc. Now that gas is much less expensive, farmers are receiving lower prices for their commodities also. This is over simplified, but I think that you probably get the idea.
The point of all this is that a strong agricultural sector continues to be important in Johnston County. To put it in terms of a stock portfolio, it diversifies our economy and protects us from potential risk.
Of course, there are many tangible benefits that we all derive from agriculture in general and from our local agriculture every day. In the United States, we enjoy the safest and most abundant food supply in the world at a very economical cost.
We are all the beneficiaries of great food that is locally produced and is healthy and nutritious.
I hear many people state that they are appreciative of the rural agrarian life that we enjoy in Johnston County. I know that I enjoy riding down the road looking at crops, forests, and animals more than rows of houses.
Great agricultural advancements brought about through research at land-grant universities, bioscience companies, and through technology are making farms more efficient and productive each year.
Nationally, less than 2% of our workforce is directly employed in agriculture. However, according to Mike Walden, Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at NC State University, 16% of North Carolina’s employees work in agriculture and his most recent estimate put that number at approximately 10% in Johnston County.
While our number of agricultural workers is declining, the world population and demand for food is growing daily along with the expectations placed upon the farmer. Today, our farms are more regulated than they have ever been, especially as it relates to food safety compliance.
According to the 2012 Census of Agriculture, there was 194,827 acres of land in farms in Johnston County and there were over 1175 farms in the county. The number of farms declined as expected compared to the previous census, however the shocking thing was that the land in farms increased slightly.
The 2017 US Census of Agriculture is currently underway, and the National Agricultural Statistics Service is mailing packets to over 3 million US producers. Farmer input is important, and aids policy makers in their decisions. It will not surprise you all to know that I do not have a crystal ball, nevertheless I expect that farm numbers and land in farms will both decline in Johnston County. Is this good or bad? That is for you to decide.
As you celebrate this holiday season, enjoy meals, and benefit from our economic prosperity, remember the farmers and their importance to our economy and local way of life. In Johnston County, our farmers are true family farmers that make a living for themselves and their families.
They are resilient and they are excellent mangers of natural resources, finance, marketing, labor, equipment, and more. Farming is a way of life, but it is also a very complex business and most CEOs of big corporations would find it challenging to walk in their shoes. So, as we come to the end of 2017, remember to thank a farmer.
Photo courtesy Caroline Hines Barefoot of Selma.