Since June of this year, the author has been conducting an agricultural inventory of Caswell County. The project is designed as a collection of maps that illustrate the state of agriculture in the county and specify where unharvested farm lands are concentrated. The effort intends to help indicate where agricultural opportunities for economic development exist and with the project nearly complete, the following post showcases a few of these possibilities.1) Local Food Processing: Recent expansion of the Matkins Meat Processors facility in the southwest corner of the county could increase production capacity more than threefold.1 While the company already services producers from across the southeastern US, this increase will allow for many new clients in Caswell County. Annual beef, poultry, and pork production in the county was valued at $10, 029,000 in 2009, but less than 40 of Matkins 175 clients come from the county. Caswell beef farmers contributing more to the growth of Matkins’ plant will be a boon to the local economy. It will also increase revenue to the county government, which receives $.01 on the dollar for each pound of meat processed on site.
2) Farm to School: Meat processing is a growing component of the county economy. But vegetable producers may stand to gain as well if a similar value-added processing facility can be developed for other types of produce. Farm to Fork, as referenced in the author’s previous post (https://ced.sog.unc.edu/?p=1646), currently accounts for little to none of the produce eaten in Caswell schools. From discussion with county public school officials, we know that one of the main barriers keeping local produce out of Caswell schools is USDA inspection. The school system currently sources much of its vegetables with assistance from the Department of Defense, which contracts with major corporate food providers. A facility in Caswell that can provide USDA inspection will allow Caswell schools to purchase from local farmers.
Going another step beyond that, local producers could also then contract with the other major employer in the county, the Department of Corrections.
3) Marketing Local Goods: Since CCP’s very first days in Caswell County, it has been suggested that branding locally-made goods as “Caswell Grown” could be a great way to generate further interest in Caswell products and help farms and companies grow. With Matkins packaging local meats and Baldwin Family Farm (http://www.baldwingrassfedbeef.com/shop/pc/home.asp) selling their products throughout this region and nationally, labeling produce that is “Caswell Grown” could yield quick results for the county.
4) Unharvested Acres: Also mentioned in the previous post by this author, Caswell County currently has a great deal of underused agricultural land. By USDA counts, about 85% of the county’s farmland is not currently being harvested, a total of 83,623 acres.2 Generating opportunities for tenant farming from that has been one of Extension Director Joey Knight’s goals since serving as interim Orange County Extension Director over the last year. In Orange County he found young farmers eager to work hard and maintain productive farms. They just needed more affordable acreage to rent.
Additionally, introducing crops that have multiple uses and potential for great market value will be essential for making unused acreage profitable in Caswell County. Chief among these possibilities according to the NC Biofuel Center (http://www.biofuelscenter.org/#), are miscanthus and switchgrass. Both plants are excellent replacements for hay grasses because a) they are perennials so they do not require repeated tilling that erodes land rapidly; b) they grow in much greater volume than hay, requiring less work for more product; c) both plants are more nutritive as a feedstock.3
In addition, both of these crops have potential for value as a biofuel feedstock. If (or when) fuel prices rise high enough to adequately incentivize commercial production of biofuels, the feedstocks required will become essential commodities. Caswell can benefit tremendously from getting into this market early, converting hay acres to switchgrass or miscanthus – currently 64% of the acres actually harvested in the county are yielding hay – as well as cultivating them for animal feedstock and commercial sale on currently unharvested land.
3) Agritourism: Finally, promoting agritourism will bring tax revenue to the county and tourism dollars to farms and businesses. The first appendix to the Agricultural Inventory of Caswell County is an agritourism map that illustrates where visitors can find fresh produce at pick-your-owns and roadside stands; where farm tours happen and when; and where they can eat local food. Statewide programs like NC Farm Fresh (http://www.ncfarmfresh.com/), Local Harvest (www.localharvest.org), and Homegrown Handmade (http://www.homegrownhandmade.com/) have sponsored Caswell farms in the past, and while some of these farms have since gone under, many are still going strong. The agritourism map updates that marketing. Travelers using this map will know where to go to spend a great weekend in Caswell County, learning about its farms, eating its local food, and enjoying public amenities.
1 From personal correspondence with Extension Director Knight.
2 USDA Agricultural Statistics 2009
3 Soil types found throughout the county are adequate for growing alternative, multi-use products such as switchgrass which itself could offer considerable benefit for beef production (in studies it has produced 118% more steer daily gain than bermudagrass and expands grazing periods by 5-10 weeks1); as a commodity (where hay has regularly produced 1.5 tons per acre, switchgrass can yield as much as 6); further industrial research (NC State experiments have yet to be conducted on a commercial scale); and would activate unused farmland.