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Fewer cows, more chickens: Lancaster County agriculture in transition, USDA census shows

Fewer farms, but growing sales. A loss of cropland, but increasing property values. Less milk and pork produced, but more eggs and organic veggies.

A new snapshot of agriculture in Lancaster County offers evidence of a $1.5-billion industry in transition.

Poultry has dethroned dairy, and the growing gap may already be reshaping the landscape, as in smaller farms with more greenhouses.

The data is found in a once-every-five-years census just released by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Farmers and policymakers rely on the numbers to inform decisions from investments to legislation. And those decisions will affect both the size of your grocery bill and the quality of the food on your plate.

The ag census suggests a few cracks in farming’s vaunted place in Lancaster County’s identity. But the industry’s observers aren’t alarmed. At least not yet. They say farmers here know how to take a punch.

“Farmers in Lancaster County are diversifying,” Mauricio Rosale, a dairy expert with Penn State Extension’s Lancaster office, said. “They are creating more enterprises to generate more income. They are resilient, and those efforts are paying off.”

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Indeed, there is no reason, yet, for doom and gloom.

The census shows that net cash farm income grew by 33% to $478.7 million. And with fewer farms, the average per farm income was $93,709, an increase of 47.4% over five years.

Still, there’s reason for concern. Perhaps no takeaway speaks louder than the slowdown in sales of farm products. Total farm sales topped $1.5 billion for the first time in 2017, the year the census reflects.

But the growth from the previous census in 2012 was only 2.2%, or less than one-half percent per year. Sales haven’t kept pace with inflation, likely making farmers long for the good ol’ days of 2007 to 2012 when, despite the Great Recession, sales rose 38%, or 7.6% a year.

What’s more, the census’ number-gathering ended in February 2018 before capturing a key data point: 2018 was the wettest on record. Soggy fields delayed planting and harvesting, and yields suffered.


Fewer farms

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Much of Lancaster County is a patchwork quilt of farmland.

So are farmers giving up? The census suggests that some are.

It notes a 9.7% decline in the number of farms here, a drop of 549 farms — over 100 a year — for a total of 5,108.

It also found less farmland. The census says the acreage farmed here has fallen by 45,532 acres to a total of 393,949 acres, a 10.4% drop in just five years.

Local experts, however, dispute those numbers.

Jeff Swinehart of Lancaster Farmland Trust said some consolidation is happening, but he doubts the county lost anywhere near 500 farms since the previous ag census.

Swinehart also said his organization has tracked farmland losses at about 1,200 acres a year, far below the 9,100 acres a year the census documented.

Scott Standish with the Lancaster County Planning Commission, which uses a sophisticated tool for tracking land development, also criticized the census’ acreage data.

“It doesn’t make any sense to me,” Standish said. He said his agency’s study found that roughly 13,200 acres were developed in the last 15 years, about 6,000 acres of which are within growth boundaries where development is deemed appropriate.


Dairy woes

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Lisa Graybeal feeds a calf on her Fulton Township farm in this 2015 photo.

The pullback from farming has been driven by the hard times for dairy.

Beset by depressed milk prices, dairy farmers also face the same challenges as other farmers: more regulation, rising property taxes, manpower shortages and higher prices for machinery and land.

As a result, there are fewer farms with cows — 1,613, down 14.1% since 2012. And also fewer cows in Lancaster County — 106,429, down 4%.

What’s more, the value of milk sold has fallen by 2.6% since 2012 to $414.3 million.

“Dairy farming is struggling,” said Lisa Graybeal, a third-generation farmer in Fulton Township with 740 cows. “The cost of doing business is so much more expensive than it was 20 years ago, but our compensation can’t keep up with those prices.”

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And with the prices for corn and soy bean in retreat — sales are down 11.4 percent — a focus on crops is not the best option for a farmer selling his cows, Mark O’Neill of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau said.

Dairy farmers must adapt or perish. Graybeal and her brother, Byron, have explored adding beef cattle. They also are watching with interest the opening of the industrial hemp market.

Bill O’Brien, chief lending officer at Bank of Bird-in-Hand, said diversification will be necessary with more greenhouses growing pricier produce for niche markets.

William Kitsch, vice president and agricultural lending manager at Ephrata National Bank, said Lancaster County’s family farms are well positioned to cater to the consumer’s growing taste for fresh, local foods.

“While our farms were getting smaller, our sales were increasing,” he said. “I think that really speaks to the ingenuity of the Lancaster County farmer.”

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Poultry shines

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A poultry farm near Lititz in 2016.

A bright spot in the data is the burgeoning poultry industry.

Sales of poultry and eggs surged by 23.8% to $580.6 million since 2012. Lancaster County sold 55.6 million broilers in 2017, up 3.8%

“Tastes and preferences are pushing this quite a bit,” Gregory Martin, a poultry expert with Penn State Extension’s Lancaster office, said. He pointed to the popularity of low-carb diets that feature the low-calorie, high-protein egg.

Meanwhile, consumers are turning to chicken and turkey over red meat, he said.

But any farmer transitioning to poultry faces large upfront costs for poultry housing and machinery. Martin said the finances won’t work for everyone.

Lancaster County’s problems mirror issues farmers across the country face. Farming has never been for the faint of heart.

“Agriculture has been here before,” George Cook, a Lancaster attorney with expertise in farming issues, said. “The early 1980s was another difficult time, but farmers are resilient people, and the work ethic is strong in our county.”

And Lancaster County’s proximity to the major cities of the Northeast ensures it will continue to be a vital breadbasket to tens of millions, O’Neill of the Farm Bureau said.

“Agriculture is definitely in a transition phase,” O’Neill said, “and all farmers are looking at multiple ways to earn income to keep the farm operations going.”

Tom Baldrige of the Lancaster Chamber said the census’ message of change means agriculture’s vitality can’t be taken for granted.

“Fortunately for us, the one constant is the hard-working farm families who find ways to innovate and adjust to meet market demands and keep agriculture such a significant part of our county’s economy,” he said.

Staff writer Heather Stauffer contributed to this report.