Originally created 06/18/04

More Georgians opt for part-time farming



ATHENS, Ga. - When Russell Yeany retired after 25 years in the University of Georgia's College of Education, he could have had a life of ease, thanks to his retirement income and benefits.

Instead, Mr. Yeany became a farmer, producing about 40 calves a year on his Oglethorpe County farm.

Farming doesn't produce enough money to contribute to his family's living expenses, but that's not the point for Mr. Yeany.

"With all farmers, particularly part-time, it's a way of life that you have cultivated," said Mr. Yeany, who stepped down at UGA in 1999 after six years as the education college's dean.

It's a choice an increasing number of people are making, according to the recently released Census of Agriculture, conducted every five years by the National Agricultural Statistical Service.

Only about half the state's 49,000 farmers list farming as their primary occupation, according to the census. Even many full-time farmers are dependent on a spouse's job for income, health insurance and other benefits, said John McKissick, the coordinator of UGA's Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development.

"More and more people are interested in a rural or farm lifestyle, though economically they can't support themselves with it," Mr. McKissick said.

The rise in part-time farmers is reflected in the new census numbers, which show a sharp increase in small farms in Georgia.

There were more than 19,000 farms of 49 or fewer acres in 2002. That's a 10 percent increase over five years earlier, according to the census.

The numbers of larger farms declined, with little change in the overall number of Georgia farms, 49,311.

The trend toward part-time farming shows up in other census numbers.

Georgia farms got bigger and bigger through most of the 20th century, but in the drought-plagued years between 1997 and 2002, the average Georgia farm shrank from 228 acres to 218, according to the census.

Other factors are also helping shrink Georgia farms. A growing number of farmers near north Georgia's urban areas are turning to high-value specialty crops, such as nurseries, which require less land to be profitable than traditional row-crop farming. And some land might have been taken out of farm production during the drought.

The trend to part-time farms is more pronounced in counties near urban areas, Mr. McKissick said - places such as Oglethorpe County, where residential growth has spilled over from next-door neighbor Clarke County.

"A lot of calls I get are from people retiring into the country and getting into an agricultural business," said Oglethorpe County extension agent Norman McGlohon.

"We're getting a lot more hobby farms. They call me all the time to ask what to grow to pay the mortgage."

It's nearly impossible to pay off a mortgage with the income from a 50-acre farm, Mr. McGlohon said.