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.