Agriculture’s economic impact on Dallas County reaches $2B

Published 8:43 am Monday, July 8, 2013

Dallas County farmer Jay Minter looks over some of his cotton last fall. -- Sarah Cook

Dallas County farmer Jay Minter looks over some of his cotton last fall. — Sarah Cook

Editor’s Note: This feature appeared in the 2013 Salute to Industry magazine, which was included in the Sunday, July 7 edition of The Selma Times-Journal.

Any industry seeks to dominate the market. It seeks to battle and beat its competition. It seeks to expand and grow, and it’s a feeling Dallas County’s number one industry knows all about.

In a recent report by the Alabama Agribusiness Council and the Alabama Cooperative Extension System, the size and scope of the agriculture industry in Dallas County is fully examined. And, by wide margin, this industry is number one.

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According to the report, agriculture in Dallas County is a $2 billion industry, directly creating and impacting more than 12,000 jobs.

“The outlook for Alabama agriculture is much like the prospects for a crop planted in the spring. There is tremendous potential, but there are also challenges outside farmers’ control,” said Jimmy Parnell, president of Alabama Farmers Federation. “Farming drives the economies of many Alabama communities. With $70 billion in economic impact, our industry creates one in every five jobs.”

In Dallas County, catfish production accounts for 30.4 percent of the county’s total agriculture and forest production, making it the largest agricultural commodity. The report shows catfish accounting for $43.4 million in economic impact and affecting 964 jobs, well ahead of the greenhouse, nursery and floriculture sector, which accounts for $12.9 million in production and 120 direct and indirect jobs.

In 2012, Dallas County’s catfish industry was honored in the state, as the Alabama Catfish Producers, a division of the Alabama Farmers Federation, named Derry Bone Alabama’s Catfish Farmer of the Year. Raised in Marion Junction, Bone has worked with Pearce Catfish Farms in Dallas County for 18 years.

“I work for a great family, and I hope I can represent the state well,” Bone said in a release.

Bone manages 121 ponds on 1,387 acres. In an average year, the farm raises anywhere from 13 to 14 million pounds of channel fish.

As for agriculture overall, more than 250,000 acres in Dallas County are dedicated to one form of agriculture or another. In 2007, the most recent data available, there were 555 farms in operation.

In the recent report, Dallas County’s agricultural, forestry and related industries generated 12,077 full-time and part-time jobs, representing 62.5 percent of the county’s total workforce.

The total impact of agriculture, forestry and related industries was $2.0 billion, which was 72.9 percent of the county’s total economic activity. The indirect business taxes impact was $83.8 billion, 78.8 percent of the county’s total indirect business taxes.

In addition to catfish and forestry, cattle production remains one of the largest contributors, ranking third in the county.

Cattle generated $6.9 million in economic impact, resulting in 44 direct and indirect jobs.

In Dallas County alone, an estimated 21,000 cows roam the pastures. These cows, according to the Alabama Cattlemen’s Association, account for a $2.5 billion industry in the state.

Jim Holliman, owner of Circle H Cattle Farm in Marion Junction, said if the cattle industry were to disappear tomorrow, Alabama would be in serious trouble.

“This is cow country,” Holliman said of Dallas County and the Black Belt region. “For every 100 acres in Dallas County there are 11 cows — that’s a lot of cows.”

Holliman comes from a long line of cattle farmers. As a fifth generation cattleman, he said his knowledge of the cow industry “goes way back.”

“Most of the cattle here in Dallas County are Simmental-angus crosses,” Holliman explained. “This is the best breed of cow I’ve worked with.”

Simmental cows are a versatile breed of cattle that can be used for beef and dairy. This particular breed is known for it’s rapid growth if fed sufficiently, Holliman explained.

And although these cattle have a dual-use, Holliman said in Dallas County and most of the state, they are primarily used for beef.

“The whole Black Belt area is good for cattle farming,” Holliman said. “With our heavy clay soils we can grow grass very well.”

According to the Alabama Cattleman’s Association, the increased demand in cattle has kept cattle farmers in Alabama profitable. In 2011 alone, 2.35 billion pounds of beef were shipped overseas, which exceeded imports by more than 605 million pounds — a record year. In dollar amount, exports totaled close to $8.07 billion.

It’s high demands like this, Holliman said, that makes Alabama such a top producer for cattle. In 2007, the state ranked ninth in the nation in the number of farms with beef cows.

“Beef production in Alabama ranks number two, just behind chickens,” Holliman said. “Our bulls (male cattle) average about $5,000 per head.”

And, don’t forget the traditional crops, such as field corn and cotton, which are strong in Dallas County as well.

Although Dallas County is predominantly a tree-growing area with “pockets of farming,” cotton farmer Jay Minter said cotton has been grown in this area since early statehood.

“It was the heart of the community,” Minter said of the early cotton industry in Dallas County.

Today, Alabama ranks as the ninth state with highest yields in cotton, Minter said, and its years like this that he feels most fortunate to be in the cotton growing industry.

“It takes a lot of things going right to have a good crop,” Minter said during last fall during the middle of a good cotton harvest. “I feel like God is looking out for me during years like this. Seeing a good rain in the middle of summer and seeing a beautiful crop come in — it makes it all worth it.”

Although Parnell said agriculture is strong, there are plenty of challenges.

“Right now commodity and livestock prices are good, but production costs continue to increase. Farmers are having to produce more in order to maintain the same standard of living,” Parnell said. “As the economy improves and new home construction rebounds it should help Alabama’s forestry, greenhouse, nursery and sod producers.

“The challenges facing Alabama farmers include high production costs, expanding federal regulation, and increased foreign competition — especially with catfish.”