John Killeen is a recent graduate of UNC’s Department of City and Regional Planning and a CCP intern working in Caswell County.
The economy of Caswell County has been facing a fundamental transition since the decline of the domestic tobacco market. At the same time, short-term subsidies from the North Carolina Tobacco Buyout program offer relief to farmers, without treating the damage to the local economy. Regional partnerships and prominent biomass crops could hold the key to the future.
Statistics from the agricultural census reveal the number of productive acres in Caswell County have declined since the 1990s when tobacco was still strong. In 1997 137,873 acres of the county were farmland, with 22,618 being harvested. Today, there are 102,299 acres of farmland and of those only 18,676 are being harvested. The difference is between a $28,385,000 annual market value in 1997 and $20,703,000 in 2007 – a 27% drop.
To address potential economic hardship resulting from the tobacco settlement of 1999, North Carolina’s Tobacco Buyout program was introduced in 2004. Under this program, tobacco farmers would be eligible to receive payment for lost income as contracts for the crop dried up. Farmers taking tobacco buyout money receive up to three dollars per pound for tobacco they would have produced, based on their yields in the three years preceding the 2004 Buyout legislation. This amount gets broken out into ten annual payments, or up to $0.30 per pound per year. The Buyout program suggests this is an opportunity to change gears for farmers, particularly as the tobacco market expects strong growth in international markets:
“Growers must use their producer payments to transition to a new era of tobacco production, out of tobacco production to other agricultural enterprises, or out of tobacco production to a non-farming occupation.”
But the program appears to have stalled growth in Caswell, at least for now. According to Caswell Cooperative Extension Director Joey Knight III, farmers who have been taking advantage of the Tobacco Buyout in Caswell have not been planning for the next stage, when the subsidy comes to an end in 2014. Add to that the fairly normative rural 21st century phenomenon of younger generations leaving the family business and the county is heading for a serious decline in productivity – and economic strength.
To plan for the future of Caswell’s agricultural economy, supplements or replacements for the old cash crop will be necessary. Some part of the solution may lie in crops like switchgrass or miscanthus, which can be cash crops on one hand and also high-yield feed for livestock. The land left fallow with tobacco’s decline and land currently yielding hay (which accounted for 16,000 of the 18,676 acres harvested in 2007-2008) could produce livestock feed and biomass for biomedical application aas well as biofuel production. Sam Brake of the NC Biofuel Center indicates that one Piedmont acre is expected to yield roughly 1.7 tons of hay while the same acre could yield 6 tons of switchgrass and be 4 times as valuable if sold. Miscanthus and switchgrass are also perennials, meaning farmers can do without the erosion caused by consistent tilling.
New relationships will be equally important, however. Research, regional biofuels production, and even the big local produce-consumers could become important players in the new agricultural economy. To make the goals of the Biofuel Center work, regional producers like Piedmont Biofuels and Red Birch in Martinsville, Va will rely on locally grown feedstocks. Furthermore, to understand how a localized energy production system will function, growers will have to begin producing on a commercial scale – something missing from the experimental research stations currently promoting these crops.
And while it is not production for a massive market, local food sourcing could both cut costs for Caswell institutions like the public school system and Department of Corrections at the same time that it would provide another diverse source of annual income for county farmers. The school system alone spent nearly $650,000 in food purchasing in 2009, none of which went to local vendors.
Another new relationship may be with regional tenant farmers. Knight suggests that for farmers who wish to retire, one way to make money will be renting acreage to young farmers from Orange County, where unharvested land is less plentiful.
With funds, staff, and political will behind biomass research and production, and a critical mass of interested parties in Piedmont NC and VA, Caswell could benefit greatly. The Farm-to-Fork program and the burgeoning cultural interest in local foods, the new generation of farmers in adjacent counties – each of these could help design the new economic nitch for the county. But what is certain is that after 2014 the Buyout money will be gone; and in the years since 1997’s Agricultural Census, 18% of the county’s productive land has lapsed.
Caswell’s economic future will rely on plans for revitalizing agricultural production. The two best bets appear today to be a) production for the expanding international tobacco market, and/or b) a bundle of feedstocks for biomass and local food sourcing. One points to the past and the other to the goals for a sustainable regional economy.