Virginia Farm to Table Plan aimed at boosting the commonwealth’s farms and food system
by Kayla Hastrup of VT Engage
Although agricultural production is still the Commonwealth of Virginia’s largest industry, from 1997 to 2007 the state lost more than 649,000 farm acres to development and experienced a significant decline in the number of farms.
To address potential problems resulting from this decline, the Virginia Tech College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (CALS) initiated the development of a statewide plan that addresses key issues facing farmers, food entrepreneurs, and communities.
Seventeen CALS faculty members collaborated with Virginia's Food System Council, Virginia State University, Virginia Cooperative Extension, and the University of Virginia for a year on the Virginia Farm to Table Plan, which was released in February. The plan includes 38 recommendations that address business and production management, food system planning, and a number of other agricultural issues.
Catawba Farmer's Market
Engaging agencies, organizations, and institutions across the state in creating a stronger food system was the primary goal for the plan. “We asked, ‘how could we work together to solve the systematic social and cultural issues of Virginia’s food system?’” says Eric Bendfeldt, a community viability specialist with Virginia Cooperative Extension and the plan’s lead author.
Working with stakeholders for a common purpose, strengthening Virginia's agriculture base, and providing social opportunities all went into the plan's process, says Kim Niewolny, an assistant professor in the CALS Department of Agriculture and Extension Education and a Farm to Table Team member.
A major challenge identified in the plan was cultivating beginning farmers and farm workers for long-term agricultural stability. Virginia farmers – whose average age is 58 – face numerous risks and challenges, including a thin profit margin. Supporting and encouraging young farmers is essential to Virginia’s agricultural future.
Jason Pall and Sally Walker of Glade Road Growing, a small Blacksburg
farm specializing in vegetables, honey, and apples.
Despite the aging farming population and decline in profitability, the Farm to Table Plan noted that the next generation of farmers are demonstrating a significant demand for agricultural opportunities and that there is a trend, both national and local, toward increased opportunities for food producers.
“Farming is a hard way to live, but people want to be connected to the land and to their food,” Niewolny says. “It is important that there are local communities working with agencies and universities, all talking about how to encourage and support farmers.”
The plan recommends expansion of initiatives that provide opportunities and resources for the next generation of farmers. One such initiative is the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition, which works to recruit, train, and establish Virginia's future farmers. The coalition, formed in 2009 by Virginia Tech and Virginia State University as a way to effectively address start-up needs, supports the next generation of farmers by sharing opportunities and resources.
“The Farm to Table Plan is an opportunity to continue working toward big initiatives in a collaborative spirit,” Niewolny says. “We hope it will create discussions, generate new jobs and opportunities, and improve the overall quality of our food system.”
A copy of the Farm to Table Plan can be downloaded from the Virginia Cooperative Extension website. For more information about the plan, contact Extension community viability specialists Eric Bendfeldt at 540-432-6029 or Crystal Tyler-Mackey at 804-524-5494.