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Business 2005

Agriculture: Farms shrinking as builders reap harvest

With more farmland being sought and bought for more residential development, the number and size of farms is continuously sapped.

By BETH N. GRAY
Published February 13, 2005


The summer's hurricanes pinched some facets of agricultural production in Hernando County, but other pressures are higher on local farmers' list of woes in 2005.

Development is putting a squeeze on considerable farm acreage. Milk and egg producers lament low prices. And, as the farming population ages, some have grown weary of hard work and long hours that don't always yield a profit.

"It's a hot topic in Hernando County," Tabitha Hatten said of developers gobbling up farmland. She and her husband, Thurman, 69, own and manage the county's largest dairy farm, a 600-cow operation near Ridge Manor.

She acknowledged a well-known axiom among farmers: "The way to make money farming is to sell the farm."

Of five dairy farms in the county at the beginning of 2003, only two remained in business at year's end, Mrs. Hatten said.

Ariana Dairy Farms sold out for development. T.J. Smith & Son Dairy Inc. sold its cows but still holds the land.

The Hattens, dairying for 45 years - milking cows 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, with no guarantee of an income sufficient to pay the bills - have taken note of the sales.

"When somebody comes along, and you've lost a half-million dollars in a year or two, it's very tempting," said Mrs. Hatten. "It's definitely a thought of ours."

Ken Smith, 67, of T.J. Smith & Son, explained his decision to part with his cows: "I'm tired of making money one year and losing it the next."

Losing years numbered more than making years, he added.

Milk prices have been up and down in recent years, Thurman Hatten said, from $13 to $18 a hundredweight.

"It's costing us about $17 a hundredweight to produce," he said.

A price of $17.50 per hundredweight is predicted for Central Florida milk this year.

Milk prices seesaw with supply and demand, he explained, and powdered milk is being imported from European countries.

"We're getting too much milk in this country," he declared.

On the positive side, milk is the fastest-growing beverage line among fast-food restaurant chains. And more schools are removing soft drinks from their campuses.

"That will help somewhat," Hatten acknowledged.

In the beef cattle industry, supply and demand have been in synch for several years.

Beef prices have been good, said Ralph Roller, president of the Hernando County Cattlemen's Association. He doesn't foresee prices slackening this year.

"Beef is in," he said, referring to the popular high-protein diets.

But cattlemen in Hernando definitely are feeling the pressure of development, Roller said. If they are age 40 to 50, they may sell off large acreages and buy a smaller farm. Older than that, he said, they'll sell out and buy a condo.

Homer Hunnicutt, one of five shareholders in the Hillandale Farm poultry corporation, has no plans to sell out. He likes it right where he is, raising pullets on a four-house farm with 100,000 birds each along Powell Road south of Brooksville.

In the egg business, "pricing is always a problem," Hunnicutt said. "It never stays good for long. It hit an all-time high last year in this area, retailing at $1.50 (a dozen). You can probably buy all the eggs you want now for less than $1."

With the record prices of 2003, poultry producers expanded.

"Now, we've got to lean it back down," he said.

Demand is largely inelastic, Hunnicutt said of the market for eggs. The low-carb diet craze may have boosted demand last year, as well as advanced research in the medical community that put eggs back in the healthy-foods column after years of concern about their cholesterol content.

But in busy households, career moms have replaced the traditional bacon-and-egg breakfast with the likes of toaster-quick Pop-Tarts, he said.

A ray of sunshine in the poultry industry is cheaper feed.

"Last year we had very high feed prices," Hunnicutt said. "This year we have low feed prices because of government (feed grain) programs, weather, a bumper crop of corn and soybeans. We've got cheap feed and cheap eggs."

Elsewhere on the local agricultural scene, citrus customers at Boyett Grove in Spring Lake want gift boxes and baskets of specialty fruit. It's a niche market.

Compared to citrus groves that produce fresh specimens for supermarkets or the juice industry, growing and marketing gift fruit requires that it be "picked much more carefully, sorted more carefully, washed and waxed, packed and transported ... to arrive as nice as when it was shipped," said Katherine Oleson.

She and her husband, Jim Oleson, have owned the 100-acre grove since 1963. It was established just after the Civil War and replanted after the big freeze of 1895.

While prices in the mainstream market for citrus continue high because of hurricane losses last year, the gift fruit segment has remained steady in price and demand, Katherine Oleson said.

Developers have not come knocking on the Olesons' door.

"Land suitable for citrus is not too suitable for development," she said, pointing out that groves are planted at high and rolling elevations where the threat of frost is lessened.

Of course, all farmers are at the mercy of the weather, every season, every year. And last year's hurricanes posed some problems locally.

Vegetable grower David Frazier in Brooksville had 12 acres of sweet corn drowned and washed out. His planned October harvest was a total loss.

"And then you had trees down in fields, fall across tractors and a barn," he said.

Hillandale Farm suffered several days without power at its Masaryktown facility, which houses 600,000 laying hens. A backup generator then failed. A generator hustled in from Georgia managed to keep enough water and a little feed flowing to the fowl.

"There was not a lot of bird loss, but product loss," Hunnicutt said.

Dairyman Thurman Hatten said he is buying hay at $110 a ton. Before the hurricanes, it cost $50 a ton.

Roller, of the cattlemen's association, said losses to beef farmers mainly ran to their hay crops.

Most longtime farmers aren't bullish on the future of agriculture in Hernando County.

Hatten said he wouldn't recommend a young person go into dairying.

"I love dairy farming, but the last two to three years have been very frustrating," he said.

Smith, now without cows, said he recently returned from an American Farm Bureau Convention in Charlotte, N.C., where he heard what he already knew: "It's getting extremely tough to make a living in agriculture."

Yet those with no debt load or a low one are doing well, he added.

Downsizing continues to be the trend across Hernando agriculture, said Stacy Strickland, agricultural agent with the Hernando County Cooperative Extension Service.

"Hernando County is going toward small farmer enterprises," Strickland said. "Larger farms are being broken up into smaller farms. It's not really that we're losing production; it's just changing."

Farmland on the books decreased by 4 percent between 2002 and 2003, dropping from 65,315 acres to 55,845 acres, Strickland said. Most Hernando County farms now range from 1 to 49 acres, he said.

That's why Strickland was hired recently as an ag agent who specializes in small farm endeavors.

[Last modified February 8, 2005, 16:44:07]


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