FUQUAY-VARINA In 10 generations of farming the same piece of Wake County land, the Burt family has seldom seen weather as kind as it has been this year.
This is one of those great years, said Fred Burt, who now helps his son, John, run the 700-acre spread outside of Fuquay-Varina. Thats not true most of the time, but this was a good year. Ill admit it.
For crop farmers, weather is the biggest factor determining whether they make a profit or even earn enough to cover the bills. The 2012 growing season wasnt perfect; it included a late freeze that damaged apples in the mountains and in some places, there was too much or too little rain. But the season was more notable for what didnt happen: no widespread drought, no relentless rains, no rash of tornadoes, no major hurricane.
Agriculture is still North Carolinas largest industry, accounting for more than $70 billion in income each year, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services. About two-thirds of that comes from livestock production, mostly poultry and pigs, whose growers struggled this year because of soaring feed prices.
The remainder is counted in bushels, bales and pounds. While some of this years crops peanuts, cotton, soybeans are still being harvested, and Christmas trees have not begun to be cut, reports so far indicate average or better yields. Prices, too, are generally better than last year.
Its the kind of year that keeps farmers hanging on, Burt says.
In farming, youve got to be able to live for nine or 10 months of the year with all the money going out for fertilizer, seed, equipment or repairs, he said. You only make your money in the last couple months of the year, and sometimes, you dont make much then.
Centuries of farming
Not being able to make it through the lean months, or the lean years, makes it tempting for farmers to sell their land, most often to developers. Since 2002, North Carolina has lost more than 6,000 farms, and 600,000 acres of land have moved out of agricultural production, making the state the national leader in farmland loss. The state has about 52,000 working farms.
In 2005, the legislature established the Farmland Preservation Trust Fund, designed to support the use of private land for farming, forestry and horticulture.
The recession has reduced development pressure on farmland, says Dewitt Hardee, who manages the program for the agriculture department. But I see it ramping back up, mainly because so many people continue to move to North Carolina, he said.
To celebrate families who stay on the farm, state agriculture officials launched a search in 1970 to find those who have owned or operated a North Carolina farm for 100 years or more. In its first luncheon at the N.C. State Fair, the Century Farm program honored more than 800 families.
Century Farm family reunions are held at the fair every four years. The next one will be at Dorton Arena starting at 11 a.m. Wednesday. Some 1,600 families, including the Burts, are now on the list, representing every county in the state except Dare and Swain.
To last 100 years, farm families have to adapt, says Kent Messick, chief of field services with the departments agronomic division. While tobacco still is a valuable crop, worth more than $589 million to the state in 2010, many farmers have switched to other commodities since the dismantling of the quota and price-support system. Even cotton, which made a comeback in the state in the 1990s, is expected to be less profitable over time because of competition from India and China.
In the past five to 10 years, Messick says, more growers in the state have been planting new crops such as canola, rapeseed and clary sage, all produced for their oil.
Diversifying the farm
For generations after his ancestors got their land in a grant from King George II, Burt says, they planted mostly corn, cotton and tobacco. When he took over the farm, he grew tobacco, too, but then he got called up for active duty with the N.C. National Guard during Desert Storm in 1990 and had to leave the country. He rented his tobacco land to another farmer and, when he came back, he decided to grow something else.
Now he produces three varieties of hay for horses: alfalfa, orchard grass and a hybrid coastal Bermuda.
Horse people are picky, Burt said, but we have a good product. People want it, and we can set our own prices. Customers come from as far away as Wilmington, and the Burts dont even advertise.
In competition at the state fair last week, the Burts hay took three ribbons.
Burt and his son also raise some beef cattle. In 2008, they built a horse barn and the next year began boarding horses. Some owners come out every day to visit their animals in one of the pastures, or ride them in the ring or along the farm paths.
At last count, in 2007, Wake County had only 827 farms left, and the average age of a farmer was 59. Burt is a year older than that.
John Burt, 30, plans to keep farming this land. What will his own son do with it?
Its too early to say, he said.