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Today's Hernando farmers are producing more on fewer acres

Forget the farmer of yore, growing crops and raising livestock as did his father and grandfather before him.

In fact, today's farmer might not even be a "he."

"Our farmers are not the stereotype," said Stacy Strickland, small farms specialist with the Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service. "This is 21st century farming here."

As an example, Strickland noted that a grower recently asked him for a scientific journal article regarding peaches — "the type of articles I read," said Strickland, who has a doctorate. "It's the face of changing agriculture here."

The most recent ag census, out this month and comparing 2002 statistics to 2007 figures, reveals that the number of Hernando County farms increased over the span by 24 percent, but acreage per farm decreased 14 percent, from an average 246 acres to 73 acres.

While dealing with smaller acreage, farmers saw total ag income jump over the five-year period from $21.7 million to $35.7 million. "The farmers of this county have made more with less," Strickland said. That isn't so across Florida, he noted.

"I think what has to account for that is the high value of crops we're growing. This is the first census that our blueberry production has shown up. We're almost 50-50 between crops and livestock. I find that very interesting."

Livestock previously dominated. But livestock production requires more acres.

Nonetheless, Hernando is 10th among 67 counties in goat production and 16th in the number of ponies.

Fruits, berries and nuts have swelled crop income, Strickland said. A new plot of commercial blackberries has been planted with an aim at U-pick next summer. Although strawberry production is limited, berry growers have adopted hydroponic technology.

And, "people are planting grapes," Strickland said. One grower is managing arbors covering 5 to 6 acres. Other plots are smaller, but grapes are land intensive, not requiring vast spaces. Climate and soil are appropriate for the Muscatine variety, which are used in the making of wine.

Another pecan orchard also has been planted.

"I'd like to see where we plant more pecans," Strickland said, but only on suitable moisture-holding clay soil. He has personal knowledge of the crop. He grew up on a pecan farm in Georgia.

At the 2009 AGRItunity conference in January at the Hernando County Fairgrounds, some 400 growers and wannabe farmers from three counties gleaned information on production of various crops with new technology and raising cattle in a hot climate.

Many visitors expressed interest in growing hydroponically, in nutrient-rich water rather than soil, Strickland said.

"We try to give people what they want," he said, so a seminar on the topic is sure to be offered at next year's conference.

Two seminars on marketing also drew sizable audiences. Strickland has been urging producers to maintain e-mail lists of their customers and inform them of what they have available for sale.

"It's a great little tool," he said.

As for the current marketplace, cattle prices are down, Strickland said.

"We kind of expected that because cattle (prices) follow a five- to seven-year cycle," he said.

Farmers are raising prices for hay based on the increased cost of fertilizer and fuel.

"The price of fertilizer is five times what it was five years ago," the specialist pointed out.

He said he has tallied costs with farmers who were surprised to learn they're now paying $40 to grow and harvest the typical round bale of hay.

Summarizing the past year, Strickland said, "I feel like, in ag, we are doing very well. We could always do better. But compared with other parts of the economy, I think we're doing fairly well."

Beth Gray can be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net

Today's Hernando farmers are producing more on fewer acres 02/21/09 [Last modified: Saturday, February 21, 2009 11:01am]
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