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LaFAYETTE, Ga. - Walker County has galloped to the front of the pack for horse farming in the Peach State.

The Northwest Georgia county ranked seventh of Georgia's 159 counties for horse and pony inventory, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture 2007 Census of Agriculture, released in February.

"We have set Georgia on its ear," said Wanda Kenworthy, part-owner of Paradise Arabians between LaFayette and the Whitfield County line. "There's more than carpet that comes from near Dalton, Georgia."

The number of horses on Walker County farms has nearly tripled since the 1997 census, from 539 to 1,405. The county ranked 14th in horse inventory on the 2002 census.

"When I moved up here in 1989 there was nobody giving riding lessons," said Dianne Adams-Koehler, who runs Mahada Farms Equine Services near the Chickamauga battlefield. "Now they're everywhere."

Walker County Extension Agent Norman Edwards said he knew the county's equine population was increasing as horse farms moved in after leaving the Atlanta area. But he said he still was surprised to see the county saddled with such a high ranking.

"I knew that they had increased but I didn't realize that they have jumped from 14 to seven," he said.

Slideshow: Paradise Arabians

PDF: Walker County 2007 Census of Agriculture report

AREA RANKINGS

Rank of selected Northwest Georgia counties in the state for agricultural products:

* Gordon: Sunflower acreage, 1; broilers, 2; horses and ponies, 4; poultry and eggs, 5; value of livestock, poultry and products, 5; pullets, 6; total value of agricultural products, 7

* Walker: Proso millet, 3; horses and ponies, 7

* Whitfield: Poultry and eggs, 14; horses and ponies, 15

Source: 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture

STATE RANKINGS

Rank of Georgia in nation for agricultural products

Poultry and eggs: 1

Peanut acreage: 1

Broilers and meat chickens: 1

Quail: 1

Cotton acreage: 2

Pullets: 3

Cotton and cottonseed: 4

Tobacco: 6

Vegetables, melons, potatoes and sweet potatoes: 6

Egg-laying chickens: 6

Total value of agricultural products sold: 14

Source: 2007 USDA Census of Agriculture

Meadow View Stable operator Kathy Smith was not nearly as surprised as Mr. Edwards.

"If you drew a 2-mile circle from I-75 there's probably over 100 horses in that area," she said referring to an area near her farm on the Walker-Catoosa line.

Ms. Adams-Koehler fits Mr. Edwards' theory on growth. When land values grew too high where she lived near Atlanta, she moved her appaloosas and Arabians to Walker County.

"That's why I'm here," she said.

Ms. Adams-Koehler said the equestrian events in the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta helped spur equine growth across the region.

"So many people got so enthusiastic about horses because of the Olympics," she said. "From then on it really just exploded."

But Burton Brown, who runs Eagle's Rest Ranch in Flintstone, said the numbers have probably gone down since the census was taken in 2007. He said he and other farmers have sold off many of their horses because of soaring hay prices.

"Hay took an astronomical jump," Mr. Brown said. "My hay cost at least doubled."

He's down to six horses after owning about 40 four years ago, he said.

Overall, however, horse-related business appears strong to most farmers. Ms. Kenworthy said horse sales now have surpassed peach and Vidalia onion sales in Georgia, though the census does not break down fruits and vegetables precisely enough to double-check her conjecture.

"It's kind of cool to know all of the things Georgia is famous for and horses are now right there with them," she said.

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