Of Farmers and Farmland: Virginia’s Declining Agriculture of the Middle

The dilemma of Virginia’s small to mid-level farmers and lost farmland

For some people, the loss of small to mid-level farms is inevitable because these farms either lack the economy of scale to compete in an ever-changing globally oriented commodity-based market or do not have the flexibility and resources to transition to a more direct-to-consumer market. Indeed, many small and mid-level farms in Virginia, those with annual gross sales of between $50,000 and $500,000, are struggling to survive financially.

Supporting farmers and retaining farmland

Virginia experienced a significant decline in the number of small and mid-level farms from 1997 to 2007. Over this ten-year period, Virginia experienced a loss of 191 farms (10%) with gross annual receipts of between $50,000 and $99,999. Similarly, there was a 23% decline and loss of 791 farms with gross annual receipts of between $100,000 and $499,999. These farms have been defined and characterized as the agriculture of the middle. In 2007, 62% of all Virginia farmers reported a net loss from their farming operations (USDA, 2007 Agricultural Census).

The net loss of farm income is the primary reason for the tremendous loss of farmland in Virginia. During the 5-year period from 2002 to 2007, an average of 104,000 acres of Virginia farmland was taken out of farm production each year and converted to other land use.

What has this meant to Virginia as far as the number of farms by farm size? From 1997 to 2007, Virginia experienced a decline and loss of 1,549 farms with a farm size of 50 to 179 acres; 953 farms with a farm size of 180 to 499 acres; and 480 farms with a farm size of 500 to 999 acres. During the same period, there was an increase of 1,269 farms with a farm size of 10 to 49 acres (USDA, 2007 Agricultural Census).

Yet, these small to mid-level farms represent an important dynamic in communities and are a critical segment of Virginia’s food and farming industry. Since they own the majority of farmland critical for food production should we just throw up our hands and say the loss is inevitable. How can we? The loss of these small to mid-level farms changes landscapes, jeopardizes the future productive capacity of land, threatens our food security, and the health of rural and urban communities.

Is the demise of small to mid-level farms and the subsequent loss of farmland inevitable? Without a bold new strategy for farm-based economic development that considers this important segment of Virginia’s food and farm industry, the demise may be well underway. Certainly, if poor economic conditions in the agriculture sector persist, Virginia will continue to lose farmers and farmland due to lack of farm profitability and economic viability.

Virginia agriculture is certainly not one-size-fits-all, but to remain viable and profitable, Virginia farmers at all levels need alternative profitable markets and marketing strategies to gain leverage and maintain their position in an extremely competitive marketplace.

With recent economic impact data showing the continued importance of agriculture to Virginia’s economy, why should the state lose so many of its small to mid-level farms? Particularly when these farms are well suited to grow local food to serve a regional food system. The current unprecedented consumer demand for locally-identified food products may offer a ready solution to this dilemma, and also create and support jobs, help retain land in farming, and provide broader economic and social benefits. Small to mid-level farms are critical because they have the land base to grow the food consumers are demanding at a reasonable and efficient scale.

The Virginia Farm-to-Table Plan aims to shorten the distance from farm to table to address Virginia’s declining agriculture of the middle and loss of farmland, while also being part of the solution to Virginia’s current economic woes and be a driving force for future economic and social development at the local, regional and state level. The Plan would help make Virginia food and farm products more readily available and accessible to all consumers and keeps millions, or even billions of dollars in the state.

Virginia will have to provide leadership and encourage rural, urban, and suburban communities to cooperate statewide to develop local farm production, increase infrastructure and distribution, improve consumer access, and enhance public and consumer education. Small to mid-level farmers, along with new and beginning farmers, interested in transitioning to serve the demand for more locally-grown and identified food products will need agronomic and entrepreneurial training, access to land, labor, equipment, and capital. Agricultural and food entrepreneurs will need increased community and public support to build Virginia-based value chains to deliver large volumes of local Virginia farm products to schools, institutions, and other in-state markets. Localities and communities will have to encourage farming, protect farmland, and insure the future productive capacity of arable land.

Virginia can develop a statewide food and farm system that fosters farm and community-based local and regional economic development by (1) better integrating farming with its food and health systems; (2) developing policies and incentives to encourage local sourcing of food (e.g., a goal for state institutions to procure at least 25% of their food locally by 2025); (3) developing and coordinating statewide and local initiatives to protect farmland and the future productive capacity of arable land; (4) supporting local food and farm programs and initiatives of Virginia Cooperative Extension and other community-based organizations to facilitate the development of local and regional food systems; (5) supporting the Virginia Food System Council and its mission; and (6) recognizing and paying farmers for societal and ecosystem services (e.g., carbon sequestration). A farm-based economic development plan and system as outlined in the Virginia Farm-to-Table Plan will increase the supply of Virginia’s local food, will foster job creation, accelerate new farm, food, and community initiatives at the local, regional, and state level, and further the recovery and revitalization of Virginia’s economy and communities.

Adapted and updated from an article by Eric Bendfeldt and Kenner Love of Virginia Cooperative Extension entitled, Can Virginia communities and counties seize an economic and social opportunity with farm-based local and regional economic development?

USDA 2007 Census of Agriculture – State Data

If you are interested in more information about this topic, visit Agriculture of the Middle.

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