The Park at Harlinsdale Farm in Franklin used to be a fairly large farm, but now it’s a park. / File photo
By MATT BLOIS
For the first time in at least 20 years, the number of farms in Williamson County has increased.
The number of farms in Williamson County rose from 1,160 in 2012 to 1,224 in 2017, an increase of about 6%
That’s according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s census of agriculture, which is conducted every five years. The USDA released the results of the 2017 census last month.
The number of acres operated also increased during the same period from 138,782 acres in 2012 to 141,868 acres in 2017, an increase of about 2%.
The nation as a whole saw slight declines in the number of farmers and the number of acres under operation.
According to data from the USDA, farms covered about 70% of Williamson County in 1959. That number was about 37% in 2017.
Matt Horsman, the director of the University of Tennessee Agriculture Extension program in Williamson County, said those numbers roughly matched what he was expecting.
“When you get beyond traditional ag, I think that’s where you’ll start to see quite a few things that are on the rise,” he said. “If you look across the last 20 years, you’re going to see lots of things increasing. The big traditional things, you might see those decreasing … But you’re seeing the smaller crops increase, the smaller animals increase.”
The number of cattle operations in Williamson County has declined steadily for the past 20 years. The 2017 census only counted a single tobacco operation, down from 143 operations in 1997.
About a third of farms in Williamson County reported less than $1,000 in sales in 2017 while a group of about two dozen farms accounted for more than half of the county’s commodity sales.
The number of poultry and egg operations more than tripled over the past two decades, but those farms also are small. Poultry farmers only reported $63,000 in sales in 2012, compared to soybean farmers who reported more than $3 million in sales.
According to the new data, most farmers in Williamson County live on their farms, but it’s usually not their primary source of income.
“The number of people that are considering themselves farmers is increasing, but they don’t operate like a farm with farm equipment because they’re more of a gentleman farmer,” Horsman said. “They have a full-time job.”
Horsman said the problem with having lots of small farms is that fewer farmers are investing in big, expensive equipment needed for processing some crops. Small farmers might be able to get through most of the steps for growing and baling hay, but they might need an expensive piece of equipment for the last step.
If there are large farmers close by, the small farms can borrow or rent the equipment from neighbors. But if all the large farms go away no one will make enough money to buy the equipment and maintain it.
While large scale agriculture may be on the decline, Horsman said that’s not the full story. He’s encouraged by the pockets of growth shown in the 2017 census numbers. He pointed to the increasing number of orchards and increasing soy bean acreage as signs that agriculture will remain important to Williamson County.
“The number of people doing it is increasing, which tells me that more people care,” he said. “More people are getting back in touch with agriculture rather than getting further away.”