‘Operating below break-even’

Census: Michigan lost 184K acres of farmland since 2012

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Jim Chapman, who owns Spit in the Wind Farm with his wife, Claudia, tends to a lamb born recently on his farm.

ALPENA — Farmers in the Alpena area are struggling to compete with industrial-scale farms across the U.S. as markets become saturated by too much supply and not enough demand.

Data from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s 2017 Census of Agriculture shows that farmers, particularly those who work in the dairy industry or grow cash crops, are having to produce more milk or grow more crops to make up for depressed market prices.

Christian Tollini, who will in July take over as the agricultural educator for the Michigan State University Extension office in Presque Isle County, said farmers are a vital part of Northeast Michigan’s economy, which holds true for any local economy.

“All this land being farmed is done by families that live here and are a part of our community, and it’s important because farming is what keeps these people here,” he said. “It’s what keeps our area moving.”

Tollini said it’s not really a surprise that the agricultural industry is struggling right now.

Tollini said market prices for milk and commodities — such as corn, soybeans and wheat — have been depressed for quite some time. Commodity prices hit their highs in 2012, he said, at the time of the last census of agriculture. But those prices have since continued to fall.

“One way farmers have had to compensate for low prices is, when prices get lower, they have to increase their acreage to make up for the loss in revenue, because you’re not getting the same return per acre,” he said, noting that many farmers are renting more land.

Tollini said the dairy industry has struggled for the same reasons and that many of the dairy farms in the region are “operating below break-even.” He said a number of dairies have either gotten out of the business or have gone bankrupt.

FEWER FARMS

The number of farms throughout the state has been decreasing steadily for more than a decade. The 2017 census data shows Michigan lost 4,554 farms and 184,474 acres of farmland since 2012.

Alpena County saw a decrease of 43 farms and 3,886 acres of farmland in that time. Alcona and Presque Isle counties also saw a decrease in the number of farms and farmland since 2012.

But that wasn’t the case for Montmorency County.

There, the number of farms increased by 17.9%, to 178 farms, and the amount of farmland increased by 1,762 acres, to 26,099 acres, in 2017. It wasn’t immediately clear why farmland grew in Montmorency County but not elsewhere, but the county’s growth happened among farms between 10 and 179 acres and the average-sized farm was 147 acres.

MORE SHEEP AND LAMBS

One of the emerging trends in Alpena County is an increase in the number of farms raising sheep and lambs.

Tollini said he knows of several farmers from the cattle industry who have made the switch because bovine tuberculosis isn’t an issue in sheep or lamb production.

The number of farmers raising sheep in Alpena County has increased by 13 farms, or 59%, since 2012, to a total of 35 farms in 2017. The number of farmers raising sheep and lambs has doubled since 2002, when there were only 16 sheep farms in the county.

When Jim and Claudia Chapman of Spit in the Wind Farm began farming about 40 years ago, they started with a mix of beef cattle and sheep.

Today, they primarily raise sheep. Save for one hefer, they’ve gotten out of beef cattle all together.

Jim Chapman said they decided to exit the cattle industry for “various reasons,” but economics played the largest role in their decision to sell their herd about three years ago.

“Financially, it’s probably just better for us to be not into that,” he said.

Jim Chapman said sheep are a bit easier to work with than cattle, which is why there are some cattle farmers choosing to raise them.

“Several years ago, lamb prices were very, very good,” he said. “I think that kind of excited some people. I don’t think they’ve ever been that high again, but it got people into the business.”

Although the market price for sheep has since decreased, the market has been more stable than markets in the cattle industry.

AGING FARMERS

The 2017 agricultural census also identified an increasing average age of farmers and ranchers nationwide.

The average age of all producers was 57.5 that year, up from 56.3 in 2012.

Marlo Johnson, who works as the director of the Great Lakes region for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service, said the census also revealed more farmers are also working part-time or full-time jobs to make ends meet.

“I appreciate and applaud the farmers who are hanging in there,” Johnson said, adding she often thinks about the future generations who are growing up. “You want to make sure that they have this and understand it and understand where our food comes from.”

Crystal Nelson can be reached at 989-358-5687 or cnelson@thealpenanews.com.