STONY POINT, N.C. – North Carolina has long been known as a farming state. In order for agriculture to continue to lead our economy, farmers across the state have had to be innovative and agile over the years.
Farms of today look much different than they did just a few decades ago. For the Jenkins family, it's time to plant seed at Westward Farms and that means relying on state of the art technology.
“You can be quicker and I can work into the night,” said son Harrison Jenkins. “Whereas before I couldn't see where I was. I've planted at night where I know thats accurate going back and forth.”
Harrison drives the tractor with a handful of seed planters behind him. The GPS and technology takes care of the rest when it comes to getting those seeds in the ground.
Westward Farms is an example of how agriculture is changing in our state. It has been in the Jenkins family since the early 1900's- starting out as a dairy farm. Today, you will find a little bit of everything there except for dairy.
“I thought I was going to dairy farm the rest of my life,” said Tracy Jenkins as he looked around a brand new event venue being added to the farm. “But then things change. As it goes, you kind of go with the flow when you see the trends go a different way with farming.”
The plan is to rent that space out for weddings, a growing part of agri-tourism in our state.
“You'll see people call a sheep for a goat and a goat for a sheep,” said Taylor Jenkins. She did not grow up farming, but knew she always wanted to be part of the agriculture world and says things like the petting zoo are great learning opportunities for folks to visit to learn if they haven't been on a farm before.
Harrison Jenkins will inherit the family farm someday. Today, he works on it part-time. But during that time, he has worked to make it more efficient. In fact, he was named the 2021 Innovative Young Farmer of the Year. As he says, sometimes it is a small change that makes a big difference.
“We have a thousand bags of corn in the shop and they would be gone in a day,” he said.
Bagging that corn was messy, wasteful and took time that it didn't need to. He created a portable seed corner bagger that automatically stops when a bag is full. It is not only more accurate, but cleaner.
There is often a lot of speculation that family farms are disappearing in the state, but Westward Farms shows that instead many are adapting.
“North Carolina is a still a small farm state,” said N.C. Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler. “We've got about 45,000 farms in North Carolina and probably 80-85% would be classified as small farms because of the income level.”
Agriculture is, and has always been, North Carolina's number one industry. It employs about 17% of our state's entire workforce. Part of the reason for its success is variety we see in agriculture in our state. Tobacco has reigned supreme, and still does, but so does poultry, sweet potatoes and Christmas trees.
“I think a lot of people would like to believe its a dying industry, but its a growth industry,” said Troxler. “When I first came into office, just using round figures, agriculture and agribusiness was about a $60 billion industry, today it is $92.7 billion, growing every year.”
“Our farmers in North Carolina are not afraid to try something and see if it works," said Shawn Harding, President of the North Carolina Farm Bureau.
The bureau advocates for farmers across our state. It points to the agility of our farmers, pivoting when new crops are needed and wanted. Harding notes things like tobacco growers transitioning to hemp or the surge of vineyards in the Piedmont.
As the agriculture industry continues to evolve and modernize, farmers say the ability to change along with it, will determine their survival.
“You have to change to be relevant in changing times,” said Harrison Jenkins. “What my grandpa did is not what my dad did, and what my dad is not necessarily what I am doing right now or what we will be doing in the future. So, it is constantly changing like the world is constantly changing. And you can't fight it, you just have to embrace it, and work with it. And change your operation around it. Because the world is not changing around you.”