While many of the state’s largest farms are on the eastern side of the state, Wilkes County’s agriculture economy is booming. According to John Cothren at the Wilkes Cooperative Extension, the county ranks seventh in the state overall, with agricultural receipts of $303 million last year. That’s an impressive total, one that underlines the county’s commitment to agriculture across the board.
Last year, Cothren says, agricultural impact on the county was some $551 million dollars, making up 36 percent of the county’s GDP. In addition, 22 percent of the county’s jobs, more than one in every five, are agriculture-related. It’s no exaggeration to say agriculture remains critical to the area’s well-being and continued development.
According to the most recent census, Wilkes is blanketed by no less than 1,095 farms, with an average size of 100 acres. Given the aging farm population nationwide, it’s perhaps no surprise that the median age of local farmers is 57. In the long term, Cothren hopes a turnaround approaches.
"We’ve got a very active cattlemen’s association here, with an attendance of about 100 producers each meeting," Cothren says. "I’m very pleased to say I’ve been seeing more young people showing up.”
Husbandry and Crops
In terms of state averages, Wilkes County ranks second in broiler chicken production, second in hay production and third in all cattle production (mostly beef, but dairy as well, ranking fourth statewide for beef cattle and 11th for milk cows). In terms of layer chickens, Wilkes manages the ninth-largest production in North Carolina.
“The cattle industry in part grows out of the poultry industry,” Cothren says. “Of course, as tobacco production has declined, poultry and cattle have taken over, but chicken has always been prominent. Farmers needed to dispose of the waste from the poultry, which meant they needed land, the chicken waste fertilized the soil for grass, and the cattle came along to eat the grass and graze it down.”
Record high beef prices due to drought and climate issues in other parts of the U.S. should impact the Wilkes farms’ bottom line positively.
In terms of crops, hay and corn/corn silage dominate the area (in the top five in the state for silage production), with soybeans growing in popularity. There remain active tobacco farms, but the county also produces fine nursery stock, fruits and vegetables. Orchards have a distinct role, with Wilkes ranking third in the state for apple production and in the top 10 for peaches. In addition, half a dozen wineries now call Wilkes County home, and two distilleries are planned, making use of the plentiful local corn and apple crops.
Among the most noted local progress, Wilkes County recently received a grant from the Golden LEAF Foundation of $45,000 to help build and improve its cattle stock. Golden LEAF’s mission is to positively influence the social welfare of North Carolina citizens, receiving and distributing funds for economic impact assistance based on the needs of the local economy, including economies moving away from tobacco-dependent agriculture, distributing funds through nonprofits and governmental assistance programs.
“We’re dedicating this money to education, equipment and for artificial insemination of cattle,” Cothren says. “We’ve spent $25,000 on portable equipment that can help farmers with necessities ranging from vaccinating cattle to castration and so on, including scales so they can weigh cattle. We’ve put another $15,000 into artificial insemination programs. It costs about $45 per cow for artificial insemination, and we’re cost sharing with the farmers, paying about $20 per animal. We feel that’s a fast method of making real improvements in the overall herds.
"In addition, we’ve put $5,000 into education and training for farmers. That covers things like bull selection, herd help, record keeping, calving season help, nutrition, marketing animals and general livestock management. This is a truly big step for producing better cattle in the region.”
Potentially, this may not only significantly improve herds, but might help draw new, younger farmers interested in animal husbandry into the industry.
Golden LEAF and other groups focused on revitalizing agriculture have also supported organizations like The Giving Table, whose mission is to share the region’s growing successful trend toward more sustainable agriculture with the less fortunate population.
The Giving Table operates a cold storage and freezer facility in North Wilkesboro, and in conjunction with farmer Seth Church of Apple Brandy Beef, raises grass-fed beef to help make healthy proteins available to those in need. The Giving Table currently operates a store connected to its facility in conjunction with local growers aiming to sell beef, pork, lamb and chicken directly to residents, including those living on low incomes. Its website allows customers to order online with EBT or credit cards.