The results of the 2017 Census of Agriculture released Thursday revealed Frederick County as a state leader in value-added products and home to thriving agri-tourism and organic industries.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Census of Agriculture offers a snapshot of the agricultural industry every five years. It is one of the few mandatory surveys conducted by the agency to evaluate all aspects of farming nationwide and highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the industry.

Some of the trends that emerged in 2017 were promising for Frederick County.

Locally, more than $14.5 million worth of value-added products — such as ice cream and jam — were sold, which far exceeds the gross sales in every other county in Maryland. The value of agri-tourism and recreational services on local farms also increased 102% between 2012 and 2017.

“People want to be connected to local farms,” said Katie Stevens, the agriculture business development specialist at the Frederick County Office of Economic Development.

Her office has pushed a “Homegrown Frederick” brand, which makes it easy for people to find ways to visit and buy from local farms. The 2017 Census of Agriculture’s results were a sign the marketing campaign may be working alongside larger national trends supporting agri-tourism and shopping local, Stevens said.

In Maryland, agri-tourism and farm recreation has grown into a $9.8 million industry. Frederick County was home to the third-highest-grossing agri-tourism industry in the state in 2017, following Baltimore County and Carroll County.

Seeing an increased interest in agri-tourism is important locally, because it offers farmers an opportunity to sell their products directly to the consumer, Stevens said.

The value of organic sales in Frederick County also went up 594% between 2012 and 2017.

Stevens said she wasn’t sure how organic sales grew so significantly in the five-year period, while only 10 more organic farms were established in Frederick County over the same time period. One possible explanation is that organic certification takes three years to complete, and 2017 coincided with most farms finishing that process and being able to sell organic food under the USDA certified organic label, she said.

It could also be a reflection of the markets the local organic producers are selling into, Stevens said. Farmers selling wholesale to organic grocery stores — such as MOM’s Organic Market or Common Market, locally — will have a different profit margin than an organic farm selling smaller quantities at farmers markets or through subscriptions to a CSA, or community supported agriculture. system.

In all, organic product sales in Frederick County were worth $3.6 million in 2017, according to the census. In 2012, Frederick County’s — then 18 — organic farms sold $531,000 worth of products.

Not all trends in the 2017 Census of Agriculture were positive, however.

Feed prices fell nearly 44% — from $30.5 million in 2012 to $17 million in 2017 — which may be a reflection of several years of low commodity prices for corn, soybeans and grain, Stevens said. While low grain prices are beneficial for farmers feeding livestock, it’s a double-edged sword for farmers who make a living from selling commodities.

Hired labor costs also increased 30% — from $14.3 million in 2012 to $18.6 million in 2017 — and continued to represent a significant expense to local farms. Property taxes in Frederick County also continued to climb, from $5.3 million to $6.4 million.

“Labor is always a concern. Finding people willing to work long days in all weather conditions is always a challenge,” Stevens said.

For the first time, however, the Census of Agriculture did not show a decline in the number of acres of farmland in Frederick County.

Frederick County was losing between 10,000 and 20,000 acres of farmland every five years between censuses, Stevens said. Between 2012 and 2017, Frederick County gained more than 7,000 acres of farmland.

The number of farms in Frederick County also went up between 2012 and 2017, though the average size of local farms declined by 2 acres.

“Across the country, we’re seeing an uptick in small farms,” Stevens said.

Most of Frederick County’s farms range from 10 to 49 acres or 50 to 179 acres in size, according to the census. The value of the sales from those farms, however, varies dramatically.

A large portion of Frederick County farms, 491 of them, sell $2,500 or less of product annually, according to the census. These are likely hobby farms, Stevens said. A smaller number, 222 farms, sell $100,000 or more a year and constitute a full-time farming operation, she said.

Every other farm is likely in transition between the two extremes, Steven said. Approximately 490 farms make between $2,500 and $24,999 annually. Only 79 make the next tier up — between $25,000 and $49,999 annually — and 92 make up the final tier of between $50,000 and $99,999 annually, according to the census.

A positive of the 2017 Census of Agriculture is that it does a better job of capturing the contribution of small farms, Stevens said.

“As the census changes, how they track stuff changes,” Stevens said. “I think this census does a better job of tracking farms of all sizes.”

Follow Samantha Hogan on Twitter: @SAHogan.

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