Interesting trends in Isle of Wight farming

Published 9:44 pm Tuesday, June 23, 2020

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Farming in Isle of Wight County is an ever-changing industry.

A half century ago, there were close to 550 working farms in the county, averaging 187 acres each. Today, there are 237 with an average size of 340 acres.

Those comparisons, taken from the USDA’s 2017 Census of Agriculture, are factual, but they are also misleading in and of themselves. You have to look a bit deeper into the Census of Agriculture reports, compiled every five years, to see what is really happening to farming.

The average size of farm operations is shrinking simply because more tiny farms are appearing. The USDA includes even small plots of land that can produce $1,000 a year in crop sales. On the other end of the spectrum are consolidated farm operations that may include up to 2,000 acres.

The 1969 farm census was compiled just as farms were beginning to consolidate. Bigger equipment and more efficient methods were making it practical for farmers to rent adjacent farms in order to increase the acreage they were tilling.

Consolidation occurred rapidly. Only 38 years later, in 2007, the number of farm operations USDA recorded in the county had declined by nearly two-thirds, to 197. Some farmland was beginning to be developed, but for the most part, what were once family-operated farmsteads were merged into larger operations.

Consolidation of farm operations during those years was just the beginning of the change, however. The number of farm operations recorded by USDA actually began increasing again during the 21st century, going from that low point of 195 to a total of 237 in 2017.

While there are indeed more farm operations than a decade ago, USDA counts anybody producing just about any amount of commodity for sale as a farmer. Thus, the USDA reported that 100 of the county’s 237 farmers each had gross sales of less than $2,500 that year. Another 78 operations were each selling less than $50,000 a year. That’s gross sales, not profit, and $50,000 in gross crop sales won’t produce a lot of profit.

Thus, 75% of the farm operations recorded by USDA are very small operations, some of them only a little larger than a garden plot. A lot of these farmers may be working somewhere else or farming a few acres as a retirement project. Nevertheless, USDA reported that about half the farm operators considered farming to be their principal occupation.

During that same year of 2017, there were only 50 farmers selling $100,000 or more in crops or livestock in Isle of Wight. The breakdown of sales doesn’t go any higher than that, but rest assured that some among those 50 farmers have gross sales far in excess of $100,000 a year because with the cost of equipment, land, seed, fertilizer and numerous other costs, $100,000 would not be much of a farm operation.

The number of large farms has become so few, in fact, that USDA is now refusing to report even the countywide gross value of various crops.

As recently as 2012, the USDA Census reported the total sales in Isle of Wight for both cotton and grains and oilseeds (including peanuts), as well as other crops.

The 2017 report only places a “D” beside those commodities, and in a footnote explains that the date is “withheld to avoid disclosing date for individual operations.” In other words, there are so few “large” farmers, a person familiar with the county might well extrapolate what a single farm operation was grossing.

There have been some other interesting trends developing between recent census reports. In 2007, USDA reported 37 women were among the county’s farmers. By 2017, that number had quadrupled to 153. The number of African American farmers in Isle of Wight, on the other hand, had declined from 14 to 3.

As consumers become more and more interested in locally grown commodities, it would seem to be a safe bet that the trend toward smaller operations will continue, particularly in counties like Isle of Wight that are located near metropolitan areas.


John Edwards is publisher emeritus of The Smithfield Times. His email address is