Farming makes a bit of a comeback in Douglas County, new numbers show

photo by: Associated Press

In this June 15, 2018, photo, winter wheat is harvested in a field farmed by Dalton and Carson North near McCracken, Kan.

About 20 years ago, one of the great hand-wringing fears was that homebuilding was going to grow so quickly that all the good farmland in Douglas County was going to be built over.

And there was some reason to worry. From 1997 to 2002, the number of farms in Douglas County fell by about 4 percent, the number of acres in production dropped by about 13,000, and the value of all agricultural products grown or raised in the county fell by almost 40 percent. While agriculture wasn’t on its deathbed in Douglas County, it certainly didn’t have any positive momentum.

But now there are signs farming is making at least a mini-comeback in Douglas County. The number of acres being farmed in Douglas County hit its highest levels since at least the 1990s, and the dollar value of agricultural products grown or raised in Douglas County also increased sharply, according to the latest Census of Agriculture produced by the United States Department of Agriculture.

The latest figures available are for 2017, and the USDA only produces the ag census once every five years. The numbers show it has been a pretty good five-year period in Douglas County. Here’s a look at some of the facts and fun figures from the report:

Growing more: Douglas County had 230,634 acres in agricultural production in 2017. That’s up from about 210,000 acres in 2012, or nearly a 10 percent increase. The latest Census listed figures dating back to 1997, and the 230,000 acres is actually the highest mark for Douglas County during that time period. In 2007 there were about 220,000 acres, in 2002 about 201,000 acres and in 1997 about 213,000 acres.

Growing smaller: The size of the average farm is shrinking in the county. The median size for a Douglas County farm is now 63 acres. Over the last 15 years, the median size of a farm in the county has been between 74 and 80 acres. The smaller farms fit with the trend that several county leaders have been promoting: more specialty farms, whether they be flowers or vegetables or other nontraditional crops. Those types of operations typically need less land and are easier for younger farmers to break into.

More farms: You’ve maybe already figured this out. If there is more land in production but each farm is smaller, then there must be more farms in Douglas County than there used to be. Indeed, the number of farms has risen. The latest numbers show 998 farms, up from 945 in 2012. The numbers are down from a high mark of 1,040 in 2007. That, however, shouldn’t be confused with the number of people making their full-time living in farming. A farm can be as simple as someone owning a pasture and renting it out for hay, which is far from a full-time living.

Big dollars: The market value of all commodities grown or raised in Douglas County hit $65.8 million in 2017. That’s up 50 percent from the $43.8 million market value in 2012. That’s a big swing in a lot of industries, but it isn’t that uncommon in agriculture. The reason tractors move slowly is because the finances of a farmer move like a roller coaster. From the 2007 to 2012 period, the market value of products grown or raised in Douglas County grew by just 6 percent. From 2002 to 2007, they grew by 72 percent. From 1997 to 2002, they fell by 37 percent. Expenses, of course, also are rising on the farm. The average operating expense per farm in Douglas County is $51,622. That’s up 16 percent from 2012. From 2007 to 2012, expenses per farm grew by 28 percent. From 2002 to 2007, they were up 6 percent. From 1997 to 2002, expenses grew by 14 percent.

We like beans: Soybeans continue to be the most frequently planted crop in Douglas County, with 60,363 acres harvested. That’s up from about 47,000 acres in 2012. It is the highest total dating back to 1997. About 37,000 acres of corn were harvested in 2017, up from about 31,000 in 2012. Wheat is the crop Douglas County farmers have cut back on. About 4,000 acres were harvested in 2017, down from a recent high of about 11,000 acres in 2007.

Here’s the beef: There are two types of counties in Kansas: those where the people outnumber the cattle and those where the cattle outnumber the people. Douglas County is in the former, but most counties are in the latter. (I hear all the time about the right to arm bears, which is fine, but please, don’t ever arm cows. If they ever get guns, they’ll own this state.) There are more cattle in Douglas County than you might think. There were 20,579 head of cattle, including calves, in the county. That’s up from about 18,000 in 2012, but was down from a recent high of about 27,000 in 1997.

In case you are wondering, there were 6.2 million head of cattle in Kansas in 2017, and about 2.9 million people. We are all on borrowed time.

You also may be wondering how big of a role agriculture really plays in Douglas County’s economy. Well, $65 million in sales is nothing to take lightly, but the retail sector in Douglas County, for example, does over $1 billion in sales. But, it is worth remembering that almost all of that $65 million is coming from sources outside the county, which is not the case with retail sales. But, if your perception is that Douglas County isn’t that big of a farm county compared with others in the state, you are right.

I didn’t find a handy ranking of all the counties by market value, but lots of counties raise or grow more than $100 million worth of agricultural products. And then there are some really huge ones. Five counties raise or grow more than $800 million in products. Haskell County and Scott County both topped the $1 billion mark with about $1.1 billion in products.

As for counties right around us, here’s a look at their market values:

• Douglas: $65.8 million

• Franklin: $140.8 million

• Jefferson: $75.7 million

• Johnson: $30.6 million

• Leavenworth: $43.9 million

• Osage: $92.4 million

• Shawnee: $49.1 million

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