by Pettus Read
As more and more local governing agencies across our state attempt to define the definitions of a farm and agriculture for zoning and permitting purposes, the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) continues to use the one they have had since 1974. The old standby used by NASS defines a farm as "any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced and sold, or normally would have been sold, during the census year."
The government's definition is simple enough, but in some counties in our state, planning committees containing individuals a generation or two removed from the farm are trying to make something hard out of something really simple. Rutherford County, one of the state's fastest growing counties in population, is currently in discussion on what agriculture really is.
Due to an outdated county definition of agriculture, the county's planning committee sought input from local ag groups. However, after the local farming community gave the committee a definition that is part of Tennessee law that defines modern day agriculture in detail in the Volunteer State, some committee members are beginning to back peddle a bit.
The new definition takes into account landscaping nursery stock, larger farming practices and other modern day farming that the old definition failed to mention. At times there seems to be more concern for the house building industry and real estate marketing firms than trying to keep farmers from going broke. Discussion and voting is still ongoing in the county of 210,000 residences with 2,088 farms as defined by NASS.
Farming has changed over the years with a lot of the change occurring because of population growth, suburban sprawl, increased government regulation implication, and financial survival by farmers. The farming landscape continues to develop new looks and will do so even more in the future. It will be very important that those who wish to continue to make their living by farming, keep abreast of local issues and be aware that everyone does not know or have the same desire to understand what today's farming is all about.
In a June released statistical report from NASS, based on its most recent national survey taken in 2002, Tennessee farm numbers had decreased from 91,536 to 87,595 with land acreage being reduced from 11,986,258 acres statewide to 11,681,553. That is 304,702 acres of farm land lost to pavement and house foundations in just five years. And, the farm land reduction continues even more so in today's home marketing boom.
Tennessee farms contain an average acreage size of 133 acres with a market value of agricultural products sold per farm of $25,113. Of course, that is an average and there are many farms selling agricultural products above the statistical average. But, the fear of the large commercial farm that sends fear through many county planning committees is something that really does not exist.
In Tennessee in 2002, of the 87,595 farms, there were only 253 family farms with sales of products of $1,000,000 or more. And, that million dollars was of gross sales and once costs were removed the real return to the family farmer that produced those sales, in most cases, was anything but a huge commercial monster farm.
In 2002, Tennessee had 42,602 beef cattle farms, 5,782 tobacco farms, 4,332 oilseed and grain farms, and 15,400 hay and other crop farms. Goat numbers in the state increased from 62,154 in 1997 to 114,664, making Tennessee second only to Texas in all goat inventory. The equine numbers grew by over 32,000 giving us a horse, donkey, and mule population number of 155,025, also making us second only to Texas in total equine on farm inventory.
With these numbers it is easy to see that Tennessee agriculture is becoming a $2,000,000,000 rapidly changing industry. If local government and their regulation process does not change along with it, NASS's next survey may show that farming in many of our previously strong agricultural counties will be scored among the missing numbers of years gone by.