Every day in the United States, close to 3,000 acres of productive farmland are lost to development. Adapting to survive, many farmers have embraced a new paradigm that focuses on agricultural models custom-fit to changing markets and filling local niche markets with specialty produce and value-added products. The movement seems to be working.
Nearly 300,000 new farms have begun operations since 2002, according to recent Agricultural Census data. Compared with all farms nationwide, these new arrivals tend to have more diversified production, fewer acres, lower total-dollar sales and operators who also work off-farm. Interestingly, many of these operations are located in decidedly urban and suburban areas.
Farming the fringe
Rob Hogan, a ninth-generation farmer, works ancestral land first settled in 1757 and located on the outskirts of Carrboro, North Carolina. Hogan and his wife, Ann Leonard, live in the home where they raised their three sons, the homeplace built for Hogan’s great-grandparents in the 1840s.
In 1930, the Hogan family embarked on a dairy venture, Lake Hogan Farms. For 65 years, the business thrived and supplied milk to its neighboring counties. In 1995, the family succumbed to increasing property values and property taxes and local development pressures, and sold Lake Hogan Farms, retaining 180 acres that Hogan currently cultivates as Hogan’s Magnolia Farm.
Hogan said he was faced with leaving the farming business altogether, or making a go without the dairy and traditional crops. He made the bold decision to develop a retail niche for his farm. His land is cut up into a quilt-like assortment of fields sandwiched between suburban housing developments.
Utilizing what he has, Hogan grows wheat that is milled into flour by local bread bakers, hay for the county’s increasing horse population, wheat straw for landscapers, and, with the rise of the locavore movement and overwhelming consumer request, grassfed beef that is raised and processed in the Triangle, the region anchored by Chapel Hill, Raleigh and Durham.
Sustainable diversification is the key to Hogan’s survival, and recent census data would suggest such diversification is key to America’s agricultural future.
While there is no set guide on how to develop a niche market, the market you choose will depend on your resources, land size, proximity to populations with disposable incomes, your skill level and the needs of the product you wish to produce.
A niche in time
Debbie Roos, Chatham County, North Carolina, agricultural extension agent, says a niche farm creates or grows a specific product that few people are producing; for example, lavender, truffles, shiitake mushrooms, goat cheese, and pasture-raised beef and poultry.
“All agriculture cannot serve niche markets,” says Karen McAdams, North Carolina State University agricultural service extension agent, “but there are many potential opportunities for farmers to take advantage of local urban markets and the increased demand for local foods.”
Nationally, there is a movement toward consuming locally raised foods. More than eight in 10 consumers (85 percent) say they trust smaller-scale family farms to produce safe, nutritious food. These same folks are much less certain that they’re getting the good stuff from large-scale industrial operations.
In Chatham County, Roos has implemented a program called “Growing Small Farms” to meet the needs of the county’s increasing number of small, first-generation farms. In this area, retirees make up the majority of new farmers – the average age of U.S. farm operators increased from 55 in 2002 to 57 in 2007. The number of operators 75 years and older grew by 20 percent from 2002, while the number of operators under 25 years of age decreased 30 percent.
Mike Lanier, an Orange County, North Carolina, agricultural extension agent who specializes in agricultural development, says that despite exceptions like Rob Hogan, most new niche farms are being started by people who have had other careers.
“They may have grown up on a farm or they may have had no connection with agriculture, whatsoever,” Lanier says.
The right partner
As many of North Carolina’s conventional farmers struggle, Roos says, the sustainable and diverse agricultural practices being put to use by Chatham’s small farmers provide the best hope for keeping agriculture a viable part of the community. Most farms in the United States are small, with 60 percent of all farms reporting less than $10,000 in sales of agricultural products. New farmers are considering new techniques and creating a solid business. It’s important to remember that farming, like all small businesses, can thrive with the right partnership. While one partner might have a passion for and excel at production, another might work best in marketing, research or accounting.
“Most business owners think that having a partner will reduce their income, but the right partner could, in fact, significantly increase it,” Lanier says. “Select partners who have experience and skills in areas you don’t.”
As farms have grown smaller, demographically, U.S. farm operators have become more diverse. The 2007 census counted nearly 30 percent more women as principal farm operators, a 19-percent increase since 2002.
Norma Burns, a former teacher and architect, retired in the late 1990s. She moved to Bluebird Hill Farm in Bennett, North Carolina, in 1999. Burns had no previous farming experience and didn’t plan to farm.
Within a few years of starting to cultivate her land, Burns turned the 13 acres into a working farm, supplying produce to 16 local restaurants just before the economy deteriorated. By 2006, Burns was having trouble placing her produce beyond Raleigh’s farmers’ markets.
“The restaurant owners told me they were experiencing their slowest season between Memorial Day and Labor Day,” Burns says. “That’s my prime growing season.”
Burns was motivated to find a niche product that she could add value to, “something that would be useful beyond its fresh harvest.”
Value-adding takes raw products and increases their value by converting them into a commodity that is saleable long after harvest. Choosing a “value-added” niche product can be an important key to successful diversification. Typical value-adding includes processing in some way such as cleaning, cutting, packaging, smoking, drying, freezing, extracting or preserving.
For her niche, Burns chose a favorite fragrance, lavender; a fragile flower rarely used fresh. Lavender dries beautifully and has a multitude of both craft and culinary uses. With a value-added product, Burns could create a larger market for her lavender by creating and selling sachets, eye masks, essential oils, gift box collections and more.
“Incorporating value-added products was my attempt to accommodate the new economic circumstances,” Burns says.
After extensive research, Burns purchased 500 ‘Grosso’ lavender plants, a hybrid suitable to the North Carolina climate and soil, from Goodwin Creek Gardens in Oregon. She built raised beds, transplanted the 2-foot high plants and, by the following spring, had a field to harvest.
Incorporating more creativity into her niche product, Burns installed beehives adjacent the lavender field and also sells lavender honey.
Burns says lavender is the best choice for her and believes it would be a suitable niche product in any nonconventional farming space. “You could grow lavender in pots or on a terrace,” she says.
What to look for
Lanier recommends that farmers consider the needs of their immediate local areas before embarking on a niche project. Focusing on your market means you can find local buyers who are looking for quality and are willing to pay for it. This will help make your farm and niche economically sustainable.
While Rob Hogan’s proximity to the city limits requires creativity as he deals with development encroaching on all four sides of his property, the existence on the urban fringes is a challenge that is also a great opportunity.
“I’m still farming my family’s land, and one day, my sons may choose to do the same,” Hogan says.
Today’s farming, as census data suggests, is an ever-evolving concept that transcends age, background, gender and experience.
Burns says that choosing farming as a later-in-life career has been both rewarding and enriching. “I’ve had many opportunities and done a lot of things that I genuinely enjoyed,” she says. “Farming has given me such a fulfilling experience, and I hope to do this as long as I can.”
Rebekah Cowell is a freelance writer based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. She enjoys sharing nature and local farm visits with her 3-year-old daughter, Hannah.