Iredell County Cooperative Extension Director
Iredell County Cooperative Extension Agent, Agriculture - Horticulture
N: I'm Nancy Keith, I'm the County Extension Director for Cooperative Extension in Iredell County, this is my fifth year in Extension in Iredell County, this is my 29th year in Extension in North Carolina. I previously served in the northwest district, Yadkin, Davies, Surry, Wilkes, Alexander, Stokes, Forsyth…I was a specialized area agent, and coming to Iredell County, Iredell County is the number one dairy industry in the state, so it was good to get back home and get back to having dairy responsibilities in my home county as well as directive.
M: I’m Matt Lenhardt, horticulture agent for Iredell county. I’ve been here almost a year now and before that I was with extension down at University of Florida at a couple different counties down there, horticulture agent.
So you were born and raised in Iredell, Nancy?
N: Yeah, I was born and raised in northern Iredell County, close to North Iredell High School, on a dairy farm and we still have that diary farm. We milk about 300 cows twice a day, still a family operation.
Can you both describe to me the past and present agricultural landscape of Iredell County:
N: I guess what it was, there were many many many more farms, I think we’re down to about 1205 farms today. They were smaller operations especially with our traditional agriculture, with dairy and field crops, livestock. We’re still number one in dairy, but we have like 42 dairy farms now as opposed to back years ago you know there were well over 100 dairy farms. Everywhere, there was a dairy farm. Now, the dairy farms are larger. We’ve got dairy farms from anywhere to 50 cows up to operations milking 2200 cows here in the county. Four or five large operations. Used to be two hundred, three hundred cows was considered a large operation, now that’s a smaller operation and 750-1500 that’s getting up to large. Also the land size for the field crops was much smaller. Everybody had 50, 75 acres. Now the average size of the farm is about 125 acres and the land uptake or the land in agriculture is about 40 percent of the acreage in the county. But you know, you’ve got farms now that are farming 5,000 acres in the county and you still have those farms that are 125 for the traditional. But then we look at operations like the one we're on today (River Sun Farm) that have smaller acreage, but they're being very efficient on the smaller acres and I think that’s what people are trying to get back to, their roots, and going back to the way it was. We talk about local foods, growing what you eat, or if you can’t you're going to establish a relationship with somebody like Mike and Melinda or the Howards that are growing for you and having that relationship with your farmers, and knowing where your food comes from, getting it straight from the farm, and taking it and preparing it.
As far as dairies, we don't have anybody that sells directly to the consumer. It all is marketed through a co-op and goes through the process of plants in Asheville, High Point, Spartanburg, so we don’t have much of that on-farm-processing yet.
Do you think that’s something your producers would be interested in providing to local consumers?
N: We've got a couple of producers that are actually talking about doing on-farm-processing. I guess the most on-farm-processing that we have right now is Stamey Farms, they're actually producing the milk for Origin Foods and that’s the company that’s making the drinkable yogurt. What they're not using for the yogurt is made into the ice cream mix that goes to DeLuxe Mooresville Ice Cream.
Out of the farms you have, there’s only 5 that have CSA programs. Of course others sell at markets, but it doesn’t seem that there are a lot of operations in Iredell that cater to direct relationships with consumers?
N: Not a whole lot, but like I say it’s increasing. Since I've been here it’s increased tremendously. People are getting back to what they’re used to do, buying local, fresh produce, fresh flowers, having that relationship with their farmers. I think people ultimately are becoming more health conscious.
I know that the price of milk has lowered and as a result a lot of dairies have closed, but you're still the #1 dairy county in the state. Can you talk to me about the factors behind that?
N: The prices, actually have a lot to do with our export market. At the end of the day you could export 17 percent of milk. In North Carolina we can’t produce enough for the population, course they're shipping in milk from all over. In looking at the export market, right now we’re only exporting 14 percent so you got three percent at the end of the day, a lot of plants have actually had to pour milk out. That’s caused a decrease in the price of milk for the farmer. When the price of milk is good for the farmer, it’s of course is high in the store. When it’s not good for the farmer, it’s still high in the store. So you're looking at that middle man in the process, but right now, the price is just about break even for the farmers. So that’s the reason, you know people just get tired of going, flipping on the light switch and losing money right off the get go, and that is bringing about more people to look at these other options. We’re in a very good area for marketing off the farm whether it be cheese, ice cream, bottled milk, right here at Interstate 77 and 40 just north or Charlotte, Huntersville area, west of Winston Salem. It’s a really good area.
The dairies still in production, are they generational farms or new operations?
N: No they're mostly generational farms. We haven't had any new operations come in in several years. It’s handed down from generation to generation. But like I say, the cows haven't gone anywhere, the numbers of cows is just as many as we’ve had, it’s just the number of farms have decreased.
Why should Iredell county buy local?
N: All the dollars turn over. If you look at the multiplier effect of 3.5 or 4, and in dairy the multiplier effect is about 7, but the total economic impact of agriculture in Iredell is about 662 million dollars. Of course that’s not your cash gate receipts, but you look at that and that’s about 160 million right now.
M: Along those lines, on average 48 percent of each purchase at local independent business was re-circulated locally, compared to less than 14 percent percent of purchases at chain stores. The dollar keeps on working in the community, multiplier effect.
If you had someone passing through the county, or a resident that wants to become engaged in the local food economy, where would you point them?
N: To all of the local growers. You've got your markets, your CSAs, few people with roadside stands. Each farm is totally different. I think that’s the beauty of it. You can go to each one and find something different.
Out of these total number of farms in the county, can you break it up into percentages of each category?
N: If you look at dairy, livestock, poultry, the animal realm of things, and actually field crops, that incorporates about 74 percent and then you've got some forest land that’s in the statistics and then you've got your fruits and vegetables.
If you look at livestock and dairy, not only is Iredell county number one for dairy but they’re number one for all cattle, you know dairy cattle and beef cattle as well. And then you have poultry operations, the large commercial operations that are integrated. Along with that, they've got beef cattle because they have to have land to apply their poultry litter. We’re a very diverse county if you look at all of the different crops that we have, the different types of farms that we have, we’ve got corn, soybeans, wheat, your hay, your soygrum, the small farms with all the diverse things that they have, Iredell is pretty big in beekeeping as well, they're very important. If we didn't have bees for pollination look at what your plate would look like. What breakfast would look like.
NC Cooperative Extension is provided by North Carolina's two land-grant institutions – NC State University and N.C. A&T State University. Land-grant universities have a unique and important obligation to serve our state through Extension with programs that support agriculture, food, health, nutrition, and youth development. Extension has offices in every county of North Carolina and the Eastern Band of Cherokee. Learn more about Iredell County Cooperative Extension Services at iredell.ces.ncsu.edu.
Iredell Cooperative Extension