The farming industry is no small potatoes for the commonwealth. Agriculture is the state’s largest industry, with a national economic impact of $52 billion annually — a figure that is growing every year. Meanwhile, Virginia’s agricultural and forestry exports have increased to nearly $3 billion annually.
But what is also increasing is the age of the state’s farmers. The average age of a Virginia farmer today is 59.5 years old, compared with a nationwide average age of 50 in 1978. And that aging population may threaten the state’s ability to keep up with the demand for agricultural products at home and abroad.
Virginia Cooperative Extension is keeping farming at the forefront of the commonwealth’s economic engine and social fabric by developing innovative outreach programs.
Kim Niewolny, an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural, Leadership, and Community Education and an Extension specialist, is the director of the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition Program. The program is the first beginning farmer learning network in Virginia. It serves as a conduit — not only to educate, but also to connect organizations and individuals with each other in order to encourage a transfer of agricultural knowledge. The program received a $740,000 grant from the USDA and was created to reverse the steady decline in the number of people entering farming.
“We not only provide high-quality educational resources and experiences for a diversity of beginning farmers and ranchers, we also focus on building partnerships with educators and service providers to coordinate and enhance referral services and technical assistance,” Niewolny said. “As a coalition, we are creating shared measures of success so we can make the best impact today and for years to come.”
Farmers Casey Bartok and her husband, Justin Wisch, both 28 years old, were able to fast track their Loudoun County farming operation, Long Stone Farm, because of assistance they received from the program.
“It was during the beginning farmer class that we were able to piece together the farm-business puzzle. The whole-farm planning curriculum helped us develop a holistic plan that includes the production of beef cattle, heritage pigs, and a mixed berry and fruit permaculture orchard system,” said Bartok. “We would not be at the stage we are now if it weren’t for the curriculum of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition Program because I wouldn’t have been able to figure out the business plan as quickly and as thoroughly.”
The faces of Virginia’s farmers might be changing, but programs like the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition are making sure Virginia agriculture keeps hitting its mark.