Originally created 11/29/97

One cotton farmer left in county



WATKINSVILLE, Ga. -- The Dickens family began growing cotton in Oconee County 50 years ago.

Doug Dickens' father passed the profession to him and his brother, and Dickens in turn passed it to his son and nephew.

Now, they are the only cotton farmers left in Oconee County, a fast growing suburb of Athens.

The crop, once the fabric of Oconee's agricultural community, is harder to spot among the county's rolling green spaces.

Some fields once dotted white with cotton are speckled with split-level houses and lined with the neat curbed streets of subdivisions.

"There's not as much land left in Oconee County to farm," Mr. Dickens said. "I can count on my fingers and toes the land tracts that we used to farm that are now subdivisions and schools."

Mr. Dickens' words underscore agricultural changes in the county.

Farming in Oconee is shifting from "row crops" -- crops such as soybeans, cotton and corn, usually grown in vast expanses of tilled fields -- to smaller "specialty farms," such as cattle ranches and poultry farms, some farmers said.

"The reason for this is it becomes financially impossible for a farmer to rent land and grow row-crops on it. I think that once people like my folks retire and the land goes to the children, they're not going to be able to keep that land on the farm or rent it to other people to farm."

Despite suburban growth, about 21 percent of Oconee County's taxable land is agricultural, and county farms produce $98.5 million in goods each year, according to statistics provided by the county government and the University of Georgia Cooperative Extension Service.

But the suburbs are altering the landscape of Oconee agriculture.

As land values, and thus, property taxes rise, some farmers are tempted to sell all or some land to real-estate developers hungry to build a shopping center or subdivision, some farmers said.

Other farmers shift to types of agriculture that require less land and earn -- at least in some years -- higher profits.

"It's harder and harder to make row crops pay," Mr. Dickens said. "The way we used to survive was by volume. You didn't make a whole lot per acre, but you had enough acres that you could make it. But now, that volume is leaving us."

Whatever a farmer's choice, the end result is the same. King Cotton, and other row crops, no longer hold their thrones.

"This county, back in its time, was known for its cotton," said Thomas Verner, head of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Farm Service Agency for Oconee County.

"Here we are today, we only have one producer growing cotton, we don't have any turkey producers anymore, and very few soybeans are planted here. The row crops are basically becoming less and less of a way to make a living."

That trend isn't likely to reverse so long as Oconee County is the hot address for people moving into the Athens area, said Mac Brown, director of the Oconee County Economic Development Department.

"If somebody wants to go into traditional farming and they go out and shop around for land, I would discourage them from buying land in Oconee County," Mr. Brown said. "The margins are so low in a commodity market, it's going to be hard to pay for the land and make a living at the same time.

"I don't see that that's going to change. It's driven by the fact that Oconee County is where people want to live."

Some farmers said the same forces will push some agriculture out of the county.

"People may think that farmers are wealthy, but they're running in the red most of the time," said Charles Hillsman, an Oconee County poultry farmer and cattle rancher who is president of the Clarke-Oconee Cattlemen's Association.

"When it gets to the point that the land could be sold for more money, or you could take an early retirement, I think it's something you've got to consider."

Recent statistics appear to reflect Mr. Hillsman's point. According to the 1997 Georgia County Guide, a statistical factbook published by the UGA Cooperative Extension Service, the number of harvested acres in Oconee County dropped from 12,318 in 1987 to 9,560 in 1992, the latest year for which statistics were available.

"If taxes continue to increase, and they're bound to, then you're bound to see some farmers sell some land or shift into another area that's more profitable," said Henry Hibbs, UGA's cooperative extension agent for Oconee County.

"In some farmers' minds, they've got to be looking at real-estate value.

"Some farmers' retirement plan is the selling of the land itself."

Mr. Dickens began capitalizing on the real-estate value of some family land a few years ago. Although farming remains his family's "bread and butter."

"It's not too hard to read when you've got it written up on the wall for you," Mr. Dickens said. "You can't survive doing only what you had been doing, and you've got to start doing something else, too."

Most farmers haven't completely abandoned their trade, Mr. Hibbs said. "I've yet to see someone get completely out of it," he said. "I've seen some people go into other fields for more steady income or additional income."

One of those fields is "specialty farming," such as cattle ranching, poultry farming, nurseries and "pick-your-own" farms, Hibbs said. Poultry is the county's biggest agricultural product, accounting for 84 percent of all agricultural production in the county, with a value of $82.5 million, according to statistics compiled by the Oconee County Agricultural Extension Service. Horticultural products, such as decorative plants grown by nurseries, account for 8.3 percent of goods produced, with a value of $7.6 million, the service reported. Livestock accounts for 3 percent of agricultural production, with a value of about $3 million, according to service figures. Row crops account for only 2.4 percent of agricultural production, the service reported. Farmers choose specialties because they often use smaller tracts of land - meaning smaller property-tax bills - and are more immune to the volatile supplyand-demand markets that hurt some row-crop farmers, Verner said.

One Oconee County farmer who's taken the specialty approach is Sam Jones of Picadilly Farms. The nursery, off Whippoorwill Road, is known nationally for its hellebores, shade-loving plants native to Europe and Asia. Picadilly has earned two appearances on the PBS gardening show "The Victory Garden," and the farm regularly attracts more than 1,000 visitors to its annual Hellebore Day, Jones said. The farm sells plants wholesale to landscapers and other companies, and also attracts retail customers from as far away as Philadelphia, he said. "It's an area that attracts people to visit, because there are a number of specialty nurseries in the area," Jones said of Oconee County and Northeast Georgia. "If you look at the wholesale side of it, you have a critical mass of places. It's sort of one-stop shopping, instead of having to go out in different directions." Jones said there was room for expansion in the nursery business, but cautioned people to know the business before entering it. "One would have to be careful that they have a way to market," he said. "It's fairly easy to grow things, but you have to have a way to sell it." Still a future Although almost all parties agree that the county's agricultural course is shifting, most predict the county will continue to have a large agricultural community for the immediate future. "All in all, we're still going to have a good bit of farming in Oconee County for the next 10 to 20 years," said Wilkes, noting the number of city dwellers buying smaller "hobby farms" as a respite from the bustle of urban life, along with Oconee's many poultry producers and its growing numbers of beef and horse ranchers. Verner also said he expected the agricultural community to survive in some form. "The row cropping, you'll see less and less of that, but you're still seeing people build poultry houses," Verner said. "Those people don't get into business for five years. They're in it for the long haul. The turf business, ornamental trees and shrubs, all of those people appear to have done well who have gotten into it. "That's not to say that development isn't changing the scene and causing some people to sell who might not otherwise do so, but agriculture is still going to be here."

In the end, the last Oconee County farmers might be the survivors of a kind of agricultural Darwinism, according to Mr. Hillsman.

"The most efficient farms will still be here," he said.

But Mr. Dickens said he believes the county already has lost some of its values due to changes in agriculture. He described a time when cars pulled off county roads to let farm vehicles pass, rather than the opposite, and said a friend recently asked if he could bring his grandchildren to visit the Dickens' farm one afternoon.

"He said, `My grandchildren don't even know what cotton is,' " Mr. Dickens said.