Ritchie Roberts, of Double R Cattle, Inc., is one of many farmers in the county who sells directly to those in search of produce, something that has been identified as a recent and positive trend for Orange County farmers.

 Farmers are bringing in more profit from selling directly to consumers, harvested cropland is on the rise and the net cash income average per farm has more than doubled in Orange County since 2012, according to new data gathered in the most recent USDA census.

The USDA’s data was released in early April from the last census in 2017. Mike Lanier, an agribusiness agent at the NC Cooperative Extension Orange County Center who has been tracking development and trends in the area’s farms for years, said that this year’s data shows some promising up-trends.

“Direct market farming bypasses the in-between steps and allows farmers to sell directly to consumers,” Lanier said. “This seems to be on the rise in Orange County and it allows the customers to see the farms face-to-face.”

In 2012, Orange County direct farming sales totaled around $1.422 million. According to the new data, these sales rose to total $2.494 million in 2017, growing by over one million dollars in just five years.

Lanier began recommending that farmers focus on direct market after tobacco and dairy — two big moneymakers for Orange County — began bringing in less and less cash after their heyday in the sixties and seventies. 

In 1997, the income from direct market farming totaled $26,000. Now in the millions, Lanier said that many farmers in the area are employing this sales method, utilizing year-round farmers markets, farm stands and other opportunities to sell produce and pasture-raised meat, eggs and dairy products to customers in a more relational way.

“The popularity of farm-to-fork restaurants has also helped this local direct farming market grow, in addition to a culture of urban folks looking for food that’s fresher and buying from farms,” he said.

The new data also points to a rise in harvested cropland over the last five years, recording 17,854 acres in 2012 and 25,012 acres in 2017.

This increase in harvested acreage is home to a diverse array of crops that have taken root in Orange County, expanding on the more traditional crops such as cattle or hay to add products such as lemons, kiwis and even prawns. There’s a growth in cut flower farms in the area, and Lanier said that many local farms are currently growing around 40-50 different crop types.

“Most of the farmers I work with in Orange County do a lot of experimenting, and that results in a huge diversity of things growing here,” Lanier said. “We’re local market driven, we’ve got a lot of young farmers here who are starting new farms and people here are looking for alternatives in agriculture — more niche things to grow.”

The net cash income average per Orange County farm has more than tripled according to data, jumping from $3,637 in 2012 to $11,104 in 2017. Lanier said the cause of this sudden jump isn’t completely clear.

“I’m not sure about the increase, but it could be due in part to the non-mandatory nature of the census,” he said. “There are various reasons, but other counties usually have higher concentrations of agriculture and have a higher average than us.”

Moving forward, Lanier said he is looking for even more ludicrous operations for farmers to focus on in Orange County. When the area was a high producer of tobacco, many farmers planted tobacco and ran a small hog operation on the side. It was symbiotic setup that worked for the agricultural community at that time, and Lanier would like to find something similar for today’s farmers.

The county is also looking at increasing demand in the local market for fresh foods. In an area with a growing presence of restaurants and farmer’s markets, the market for food straight off the farm is on the rise.

“We need to keep exploring profitable opportunities to address the urban-rural divide as well, and the more farmers can make per acre, the more that comes back into these rural areas and helps close that economic divide with neighboring urban areas,” Lanier said. “Farmers here should continue responding to the market and the market will then respond to what fresh food is available, and that’s what has been happening."