Recently released data on Bradford County farms shows just how much natural gas development has contributed to the agriculture economy of Pennsylvania.
False notions take root easily, become part of conventional wisdom and can take years or even decades to dislodge from the collective memories of an interest group, a community or a nation. Less than half a century ago we thought ulcers were caused by stress, global cooling would soon propel us into an ice age and Japan would soon own most of the US. All are now largely forgotten history. Special interest groups have also been telling us fracking would lead to a decline in agriculture. That’s not true either. It’s just the opposite.
Bradford County Farms Growing
While at the big PaEnergyRally in Harrisburg on Tuesday, a friend suggested I ought to check out the latest Ag Census statistics for Bradford County. “It shows the numbers are going up,” he said. When I got home I did just that and found he was correct. Bradford County has experienced some very nice growth in agriculture since 2007, which was the point when shale gas drilling first came to the area.
The Ag Census is conducted every five years and the 2012 data has just been released. It dispels several false notions implanted in articles such as this one, which states (emphasis added):
The problem: gas leases do not protect farmland. Once those leases are signed…farmers lose control over their land. Gas companies decide where to place access roads, well pads, pipelines and compressors – and that can interrupt normal farming activities…
Agricultural land is hit particularly hard; research shows that in the Marcellus, farmland makes up about 62 percent of the acreage affected by drilling. And when Penn State professor Tim Kelsey surveyed Bradford and Tioga counties in PA, his data showed that the number of wells in an area has an impact on farming…
He doesn’t have an exact number, but Kelsey says there is no doubt that dairy farmers are quitting because of drilling. Even if their own farms are not impacted, farmers face other challenges. Landowners who used to lease fields to farmers are now renting their land for drilling-related uses such as equipment storage and water withdrawal sites. Large impoundments take land out of production, and crop yields are down in reclaimed pipeline right-of-ways… it’s clear that the Marcellus boom is a bust for some farmers.
What does the most recent Ag Census say? Well, nothing much that coincides with these guestimates or speculation. Here are the basic facts, from a survey of all farmers:
Bradford County farm numbers increased from 1,467 in 2007 to 1,629 in 2012, a gain of 11% over the five years, as compared to an 8% decline for Adams County (an agricultural county far outside the Marcellus Shale region) and a 6% decline for Pennsylvania as a whole.
Bradford County acres of land farmed increased from 266,635 in 2007 to 307,990 in 2012, a gain of 16% over the five years, as compared to an 2% decline for Adams County and a 1% decline for Pennsylvania as a whole.
Bradford County acres of harvested cropland farmed increased from 110,221 in 2007 to 129,492 in 2012, a gain of 17% over the five years, as compared to an 5% increase for Adams County and a 0.4% increase for Pennsylvania as a whole.
Bradford County Farms Experiencing Prosperity
Getting the picture? Well, here’s the best part. The total market value of Bradford County farmers’ equity in land and buildings increased from $814 million in 2007 to $1.1 billion in 2012, an incredible gain of 40% over the five years, as compared to an 4% decline for Adams County and a 12% increase for Pennsylvania as a whole. It is a remarkable change in fortunes made possible by natural gas lease and royalty income to Bradford County farmers. This money has allowed farmers to reinvest in their farms and given them the equity to do so again. This is palpable prosperity that stands in such sharp contrast to the pastoral poverty we see across the border in New York State.
It is true the number of milk cows declined in Bradford County, as Penn State’s studies had suggested, but the much bigger story is this; the value of crop production more than tripled, growing from $9 million in 2007 to $29 million in 2012. This more than made up for the dairy and other livestock declines, with total agricultural sales increasing from $121 million to $129 million. Adams County’s sales dropped by $15 million over the same period. Bradford County farmers have been better able to adapt to the changing economic circumstances of farming in their area than Adams County because they had the capital to do so. Moreover, across the border in New York, neighboring Chemung and Tioga Counties, lost a combined $400,000 in sales.
What comes through clearly in all of this is agricultural prosperity side by side with natural gas development. Bradford County farms and farmers have not only gained during the shale gas boom, but prospered because of it. They have grown their equity in a major way as a consequence of it, allowing them to continue farming while investing in new facilities and enterprises. The picture is far different than the one painted by Tim Kelsey’s very limited analysis of dairy farming. Indeed, the only thing busted by these statistics is his set of conclusions. Bradford County farms are doing just fine, thank you!