Pittsylvania County is losing ground as a farming community, a state report shows.
While the total acreage of farm crops planted throughout Virginia has increased slightly in recent years, the amount in the county has been on a steady decline, according to the state’s Farm Service Agency.
Since 2012, the number of planted acres in the county has decreased from 82,861 to 58,771, for a 29% drop over an eight-year period.
The downward trend can be attributed primarily to significant reductions in the acres of tobacco and grain planted.
Options to replace tobacco production are limited, said Tony Banks, a commodity marketing specialist for the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.
“There’s no silver-bullet crop out there to replace tobacco at this time,” he said.
The county’s tobacco production dropped about 19% since last year.
Some of that is because the county lost 37 farmers, pointed out Stephen Barts, Pittsylvania County agent for the Virginia Cooperative Extension.
Statewide, tobacco production decreased by almost 30% since last year, dropping from 21,403 acres to 14,528 acres. Nationally, tobacco production declined by 25%.
The county still is the statewide leader for tobacco production, however.
The second-largest tobacco producer in the state — Mecklenburg County — dropped nearly 40% from 4,334 acres last year to 2,612 acres this year.
Barts attributed the more intense decline there to the dependence on the Chinese market, which has been diminished significantly because of tariffs.
The economic impact of these reductions in production extends past the farmers and producers themselves. The fewer acres producers grow, the fewer laborers they need to hire and the fewer supplies, such as fertilizer and propane, they need to buy.
The ripple effect is 2.8 times greater than what the farmers lose, Banks said. For instance, if tobacco farmers were to lose $100 million as a result of the reduced production, the other entities involved in the supply chain of tobacco production would see a loss of $280 million.
“Those businesses are looking at a comparable cut from their tobacco-growing customers,” he said.
The decrease in tobacco production largely is a product of a decline in demand, tariffs that limit exporting options and several other countries upping production at a cheaper rate.
Not everything is on the decline — the county has seen a bump in industrial hemp, which was legalized to grow commercially last year. Nineteen acres of industrial hemp were grown in the county this year.
While growers and experts acknowledge industrial hemp has the potential to be extremely profitable, it is too early to tell how it will fare in the county.
“We’re a long ways away from determining if that’s going to be a viable option,” Banks said.
Barts said tobacco farmers have few replacement options.
One alternative is to plant such high-value crops as produce. Currently, Southside Virginia does not have the necessary infrastructure for planting high volumes of produce.
Another possibility is to produce higher volumes of such commodities as corn, soybeans and wheat that yield a much smaller profit per acre. Price increases had been projected coming into this year, but those did not materialize.
“Those crop prices have been down,” he said.
Wheat production is on a decline nationally due primarily to those low prices, Banks said. In Southside Virginia, hurricanes and flooding during last year’s wheat season, which is the late summer and early fall, also contributed to the decrease in acreage.
In Pittsylvania County, wheat acreage was cut nearly in half, dropping from slightly more than 5,900 last year to about 3,100 this year.
Even with profits decreasing some, corn and soybean acreage in Pittsylvania County remained somewhat steady this year.
The actual yields for soybeans and corn still are to be determined. Elaine Lidholm, spokesperson for the Virginia Department of Agriculture Consumer Services, said the dry, hot weather dried out the corn and caused it to ripen several weeks early so producers are harvesting it now.
“There are some places in the Southern Piedmont where yields have been severely reduced due to drought-like conditions this summer,” she said.
For soybeans, growers are hoping to see steady rainfall through September to fill the pods, she said.
The number of idle acres in Pittsylvania County also increased from more than 7,300 acres last year to almost 8,600 acres this year.
In terms of total acres planted, the county ranked sixth out of 96 Virginia localities, according to the state report.
Nationally, Virginia ranks third in tobacco production, trailing behind Kentucky and North Carolina.
Ayers reports for the Register & Bee. Reach him at (434) 791-7981.