Looking ahead 2010: Business and Ag

Published 12:00 am Thursday, December 31, 2009

The slogan for the Alabama agricultural community is “Farming Feeds Alabama” and, for now, it does. But the future of farming in Pike County is rather tenuous.

The major acreage crops in Pike County have always been cotton, peanuts and corn and they still are. But.

Jeff Knotts, Pike-Bullock Farm Service Agency executive director, said that 10 years ago there were three to four times as many acres of the county’s major crops planted than there are today and the number of farms is dwindling.

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“In 2009, the major acreage crops were the same as they have been for years — cotton, peanuts and corn,” Knotts said. “We did have some soybeans planted and a few fruits and vegetables. But, of the major crops, only corn acreage was up. We had 4,318 acres of corn planted and peanuts were down to 3,376 acres. That was due to the fact that farmers weren’t able to get contracts that paid what they needed to make a little profit.

“Cotton was down to 4,100 acres. And, we usually have around 1,500 acres of soybeans and that number was down to 833 acres and it all had to do with prices. Farmers have to have some hope that they can make something with a crop before they put it in the ground. They need to know that there’s a market to support the crop.”

Another factor in the decreasing crop acreage in Pike County is due, too, to the decreasing number of farms.

Knotts said the number of young people going into farming isn’t matching the number of farmers who are retiring.

“The cost of farming is enormous,” Knotts said. “Most of the young people who go into farming have parents or grandparents who farmed and they are able to utilize their land and equipment. Today, young people just about can’t go out and buy the land and equipment they need to farm.”

Knotts said those who have been able to survive on family farms are the ones who have been willing to diversify their farming operations.

“A farmer can’t make it with just peanuts or cotton,” he said. “They’ve got to do something else so they’ll have something to fall back on if the crops don’t make. Around here, the diversification is usually into chicken houses or cattle. Chickens and cows are keeping a lot of farmers on the farm. Farming’s really different now. It’s more diversified than it has ever been.”

Cattle farming is a big in Pike County. The Pike County Cattlemen’s Association is the largest in the state with 485 members.

“Most of the cattle farms are rather small and I would think that the average size is about 30 head,” said Bill Hixon, a member of the Cattlemen’s association. “We have a lot of cattle in Pike County and a very active Cattlemen’s association and we’re continuing to grow.”

At the high end of the Pike County cattle farms are herds of between 350 and 400 brood cows. The county also boasts two dairies.

And across the county, it’s evident that poultry and pines have edged their way onto the agricultural scene.

Knotts said the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) has been an encouragement for some landowners to put their cropped land into pines.

“In Pike County, we have 280 landowners who are participating in the CRP,” he said. “We have 14,600 CRP acres here in Pike County. And, we have a large number of poultry houses.”

Jeff Amlong, Wayne Farms, estimated the number of broiler houses in the area to be about 500 with an additional 10 hen houses. Amlong has a view of the Pike County poultry industry from both sides, in service and as a grower.

“A lot of things have changed in the poultry industry that encourage growers,” he said.

“Things are much better now as far as advancement in the houses, in the comfort of the birds and in getting the most pounds of meat from the birds.

“And, too, the poultry industry offers stability even in the downturn of the economy. There is still a strong market for chickens and growers are able to make money and stay around the house.”

A conservative estimate of the number of area “chicken” farms is 80 and, with around 500 broiler houses, “that’s a lot of chickens.”

With that many houses, Amlong estimated the collective batches would number 8 million birds and, with the average bird weighing six pounds, that’s 48 million pounds of meat. Multiply that by five annual batches and “Wow!”

“People have always eaten chicken and they’re going to keep eating chicken,”

Amlong said. “It’s an affordable meat … and it’s good.”

Amlong said the future of “chicken farming” looks bright and profitable and, perhaps, the most encouraging word that poultry farmers can hang their hats on is “stability.”

Knotts said while “stability” in not a by-word for many “row” crops, there will be a future in farming because people may not do much else “but they’re going to eat.”

“People have to eat so there will always be a market for food,” he said.

“However, I think that we’ll see fewer and fewer family farms and more big, corporate farms.

And, we’ll probably see more of our food products imported. If we don’t want to see more foods brought in from other countries, we’re going to have to do more to support our American farmers.”

After a year plagued by economic downturn and a skyrocketing unemployment rate, Pike County still managed to come out with a new large retailer and a new industry.

Tractor Supply Company and CGI both came in the latter part of 2009 and both will help ease unemployment pains.

CGI has plans to hire 300 by the end of 2012, but has already begun the hiring process.

“We actually have exceeded our targets for 2009. We were not planning on doing any hiring until after the first of the year, but we have 12 hires on site at the Airport (CGI’s temporary workspace),” Vice President Mark Eschle previously told The Messenger. “We’re expecting another four starting January 4.”

Pike County Economic Development President Marsha Gaylard said as always she’s working to attract new businesses to Pike County.

“I talk to a lot of different companies,” Gaylard said.

“In January, I’ll be on a mission to locate some retailers.”

“We’re doing everything we can to try and keep our economy strong and add jobs,” Gaylard said.