With the U.S. Census of Agriculture pointing to an aging population operating Virginia’s farms, the need for education and planning for the complicated issue of transitioning the farm from generation to generation could not be greater.

Virginia Cooperative Extension is continuing to offer Shenandoah Valley producers a comprehensive look at the farm transition process.

According to the census data released in February, the average age of a Virginia farm operator was 58.2 years in 2007, a jump from 56.7 years in 2002 and 55.8 years in 1997. The number of Virginia farm operators younger than 35 has also fallen to fewer than 2,000 for the first time. Gordon Groover, Extension farm management specialist, anticipates a major transition of farms, both big and small, in the next 15 to 20 years.

“We have fewer young farmers coming into the family business,” said Groover, who is also an associate professor of agricultural and applied economics in Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “A good number might want to come back to farming, but the question is: Can they generate enough of a family income to sustain themselves in agriculture?”

Extension agents in the Shenandoah Valley have pioneered multi-session workshops to help local farmers answer that question. These workshops deal with retirement, health care, estate planning, business structure, personal and family goals, and much more. Although many programs try to cover the breadth of these issues in only a few hours, the Shenandoah Valley program aims to give a comprehensive look at farm transition through multiple sessions.

Bill Whittle, senior agriculture and natural resources agent and unit coordinator in Page County, explained that open communication across generation lines is also a big issue.

“Farmers tend to be reserved about business matters, but during this process they need to communicate more than ever,” Whittle said. “They have to be willing to talk as a family about their future goals for the farm.”

Whittle encourages all participants to develop a farm transition plan that has flexibility in the event of unforeseen circumstances or changing goals. “At the end of the sessions, families have the tools to complete a transition management plan to guide them through the years,” he explained. “This plan must be reasonably fluid because life changes.”

To date, the Shenandoah Valley program has attracted 104 farm families accounting for more than 220 individuals. There are similar Extension-led programs in other parts of the state to help farm operators deal with this complicated issue.