Farmers feeling recession's squeeze

Even in hard economic times, it might seem the state's farmers could take refuge in the simple fact that laid-off workers and nervous 401(K) watchers still need to eat.

But the global economic downturn has reached farmers of all stripes in a state where farm-related businesses generate $70 billion a year, more than any other economic sector.

Nurseries have found few new homes ripe for planted flowers and sod. Poultry barns sit empty as struggling national companies cancel contracts. Those who raise livestock – which makes up nearly two-thirds of farm receipts statewide – face prices lowered by reduced demand.

For many North Carolina farmers, consumer belt-tightening is aggravating troubles that began before the recession, when drought ravaged crops and the gas price spike pushed up the cost of petroleum-based fertilizers, animal feed and the diesel fuel that runs tractors and other equipment.

Ricky Britt, who raises chickens and cows near Ahoskie, says his income last year was down $100,000. "That hurts," he said.

He has only four chicken houses, down from six, because of cuts in his contract with eastern poultry giant Perdue. Another national company, Pilgrim's Pride, shut down a Chatham County poultry plant last year.

Britt said he is keeping his beef cattle longer, hoping prices go up, and he's thinking of planting vegetables, too. While he was eyeing farm equipment at the State Fairgrounds last week, he said he won't be invest tens of thousands of dollars in a new tractor or hay baler.

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