Virginia’s agricultural industry is very diverse with different levels of local, regional, national and international trade. Diversity in the agricultural and food system in the form of farmer background and experience, ownership structure, scale, product, production method, and market strategy is one indicator and measure of sustainability of food supply.
Agriculture in Virginia is historically and economically significant. With less than 2% of the U.S. population working in production agriculture and the vast majority of people being one or two generations removed from farming, it is easy to forget about the significance of agriculture. The importance and value of agriculture as the largest industry in Virginia is tremendous and cannot be overstated. The annual economic impact of agriculture is estimated to be $55 billion, which supports more than 357,000 jobs across the state. In 2007, production agriculture generated approximately $2.9 billion in agricultural receipts at the farm gate. This production output provides employment for 60,000 farmers and farm workers (University of Virginia, 2008).
Virginia’s agricultural industry is very diverse and ranked prominently in the top 10 in U.S. production for tomatoes, apples, potatoes, grapes, snap beans, cucumbers, turkeys and broilers. Virginia is fortunate to have 47,383 farms. The average age of Virginia farmers is 58 years old. The average farm size is 171 acres and farmland covers over 8.1 million acres in the Commonwealth, or approximately 32% of the land area. Women are the principal operators for 14% of the farms in Virginia. There are more than 4,000 limited resource farmers in Virginia. In 2007, the average value of products sold per farm in Virginia was $61,334.
An important component of local and direct to consumer sales has been certified and exempt organic farming. Organic agriculture continues to be one of the fastest growing segments of agriculture in the U.S. According to the Organic Trade Association, the organic industry continues to grow at a rate of more than 15 percent annually.
In 2008, there were 14,540 organic farms and ranches in the U.S. These certified and exempt organic farms comprised 4.1 million acres of land and had $3.16 billion in total sales. Additionally, organic farms in the U.S. had average annual sales of $217,675 compared to the $137,807 average for U.S. farms overall (USDA, 2009a). It should also be noted that average production costs are generally higher for organic farms than for other farms.
Virginia has experienced continued growth with organic farm production over the past 10 years. Although average sales for organic farms in Virginia are lower than the national average because of the size and scale of the in-state operations, there continues to be interest in organic production among beginning and established farmers and ranchers. The average age of organic farmers is 53 compared to 58 for typical Virginia farmers. In 2007, the total amount of land used for organic production in Virginia was 13,502 acres.