County has slightly more farmland; trend emphasizes local food production

jvanderk@centredaily.comFebruary 9, 2013 

  • Centre County farm statistics*

    YearNumber of farmsTotal acreage of farmsAverage farm size
    Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture National Agricultural Statistics Service, Census of Agriculture •  Centre Region (College, Ferguson, Halfmoon, Harris, Patton townships; State College Borough): 27 percent agricultural in 2008; 25,645 acres 2008; 26,415 acres 2002; 2.9 percent decrease •  Lower Bald Eagle Valley Region (Boggs, Curtin, Howard, Liberty townships; Howard, Milesburg boroughs): 9 percent agricultural in 2008; 7,613 acres 2008; 7,464 acres 2002; 1.9 percent increase •  Moshannon Valley Region (Rush Township; Philipsburg Borough): 0.2 percent agricultural in 2008; 322 acres 2008; 250 acres 2002; 22 percent increase •  Mountaintop Region (Burnside, Snow Shoe townships; Snow Shoe Borough): 0.5 percent agricultural in 2008; 711 acres 2008; 698 acres 2002; 1.7 percent increase •  Nittany Valley Region (Benner, Spring, Marion, Walker townships; Bellefonte Borough): 31 percent agricultural in 2008; 23,422 acres 2008; 24,487 acres 2002; 4 percent decrease •  Penns Valley Region (Gregg, Haines, Miles, Penn, Potter townships; Centre Hall, Millheim boroughs): 26 percent agricultural in 2008; 42,980 acres 2008; 43,166 acres 2002; 0.43 percent decrease •  Upper Bald Eagle Valley Region (Huston, Taylor, Union, Worth townships; Port Matilda, Unionville boroughs): 10 percent agricultural in 2008; 7,653 acres 2008; 7,437 acres 2002; 2.89 percent increase

    * Agricultural land by region

    Source: Centre County 2008 Land Use Survey

Over the past 60 to 70 years, Way Fruit Farm in Halfmoon Township has transformed its business from wholesale, sending apples on a train to Pittsburgh, to retail, focusing on a better local product.

As co-owner Jason Coopey put it, “Life is always full of changes,” and farmers have had to adjust to changing technology, a changing industry and changing demand. Some traditional farms have increased in size to remain competitive, while others, like Way, have remained the same size and worked to meet local demand and engage with customers.

The Centre County Planning and Community Development Office and the U.S. Department of Agriculture track statistics related to agricultural land, and Sarah Parker, agland preservation planner for the county, said the criteria for the two likely differ, creating potential differences in numbers.

Between the 1987 and 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture counts, Centre County’s farm acreage remained stable, with a dip and a rise in the middle, according to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.

In 1987, the county reported 148,449 acres of farmland, dipping to 135,982 acres in 1997, rising to 165,234 acres in 2002, and falling again to 148,464 in 2007. The number of farms fell and grew correspondingly with 1,146 in 2007.

According to county statistics from the 2008 Land Use Survey, the regions of Centre County with the most farmland have seen a decrease in that land since 2002. The Centre Region and Nittany Valley and Penns Valley fall into that category, with Nittany Valley seeing the greatest decrease, 4.3 percent.

“County estimates actually indicate a very small increase in land use for agriculture from 2006 to 2010,” Parker said. “We do attribute this to the economy, specifically the decrease in development of agricultural land for residential or other uses and the conversion of forest into cropland.”

Plus, the county engages in a farmland preservation program, and some municipalities, including Ferguson Township, have a similar focus.

The average size of a farm here has decreased steadily, from 182 acres in 1987 to 130 acres in 2007, according to the Agriculture Census. Parker said that’s a concern because farms generally benefit from increased acreage that allows better efficiency and profitability on an industrial scale. She said the decrease likely is attributable to landowners subdividing their property to sell for more income or give to a child.

“Many times these are historic properties and keeping them whole preserves their vast soil resources, heritage and scenic value,” she said. “Once farmland has been converted, it is very difficult to bring it back into agricultural production, especially if the land has been covered with asphalt or concrete.”

James Dunn, a Penn State professor of agricultural economics, spends about half his time working with the Penn State Extension and talking to farmers about economic decisions. He said two things are going on right now in agriculture. The first has nothing to do with Centre County. He said traditional farmers must run bigger operations than before to make a living.

“If you were supporting your family with 50 cows in the past, you probably need 100 now,” he said. “That means you need more land, either owning it or renting it, and you need more buildings.”

The other is a movement of alternative forms of agriculture, such as production for farmers’ markets and direct marketing. There’s a stronger emphasis on local food across the county, with markets from State College to Spring Mills to Bellefonte, so people are more interested in buying.

“In the old days, when there was only one farmers market that maybe wasn’t very heavily supported, people didn’t have that many options,” Dunn said.

He said farmers with the personality for direct marketing can make more money, though it takes time to prepare for farmers markets, travel to them and deal with product that didn’t sell.

“Part of it has to do with prosperity — supporting your neighbors and things like that,” he said. “Part of it has to do with some of the issues about industrial agriculture and whether you really want to support that.”

Parker pointed out that when consumers buy produce from local farms, the money tends to stay in Centre County and support those local farmers.

“From a local foods perspective, agricultural land in Centre County contributes to our resilience as a community and our ability to feed ourselves,” she said.

Way Fruit Farm has done just that, transforming to a local retail operation and attending several local farmers markets throughout the week.

The farm, with a large retail store on Halfmoon Valley Road/state Route 550 that was expanded in 2009, began with a land purchase in 1826, and the first apple trees were planted in 1872. The farm began with 1,000 apple trees and now produces 21 varieties of the fruit as well as other fruits and vegetables.

Coopey said much of the market was wholesale in the 1940s and ’50s. Fruit would be sent to a train in Port Matilda and transported to Pittsburgh for sale.

“I’m sure the apples were not pretty then,” Coopey said.

In the 1980s and ’90s, Way began dabbling in some local retail sales, sending some to fresh produce sections of grocery stores. Coopey said many went to a food processor in Adams County.

“About 10 years ago, that started changing,” he said. “The Chinese started dropping a lot of juice apples and juice on the market. Prices were plummeting, so we started doing more retail.”

Also around that time, the local food movement was taking off, “perfect timing” for Way. The move has resulted in a change in how the apples are treated. For shipping and wholesale markets, customers demanded perfection, resulting in a greater use of chemicals. Local buyers are a little more forgiving.

“When it’s retail, people accept more because it’s locally grown,” Coopey said. “We’ve been able to take our product to a much more wholesome level. We do lots of things through management of the trees and leaves versus chemicals. You can’t go completely without them, but we’ve been able to greatly reduce our footprint.”

Way’s acreage remains about the same as it was in 1950, between 150 and 200 acres of producing land.

After focusing more on local retail, the farm also was able to start growing more fragile foods, like strawberries, blueberries and peaches.

“We’re able to pick and sell the same day,” Coopey said. “We can do it the way it was meant to be done. I’m glad the world has gone this way. Even if (local food) is not a movement anymore, even if that wanes, I hope people still remember and still come out. And I think they will.”

Jessica VanderKolk can be reached at 235-3910. Follow her on Twitter @jVanReporter.

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