Beginning farmers in Virginia will soon have access to additional education, training, and networking support, thanks to a team of Virginia Tech researchers in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences.
The project — funded by a $740,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) National Institute of Food and Agriculture (NIFA) — is expected to enhance food security, community viability, and agricultural profitability in Virginia.
“Like similar beginning farmer initiatives, our project is a critical response to maintain the viability of new farms and the economic, social, and environmental fabric of which they are a part,” said Kim Niewolny, assistant professor of agricultural and Extension education and project director.
“Virginia’s beginning farmer situation reflects a national trend where we see an overwhelming concern of a steady decline in the number of individuals entering into agriculture, coupled by an increase in the number of exiting farmers. At this time, little is known about the roughly 13,000 principal farmers in Virginia who have been on their current farms or ranches nine or fewer years. Even less is known about Virginia’s ‘aspiring’ farmer community — those who are considering farming as a first or second career option.”
According to Niewolny, the project team is currently building a coalition of organizations that will collaborate to help support beginning farmers enter into and expand markets that will enhance the viability of their farms and communities. The project will complement recent Virginia Tech reports that express the need to support and “grow” new farmers for a food-secure and sustainable Virginia.
The Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition Project takes a three-tier approach where project activity will simultaneously occur at the local, regional, and state levels to meet the needs of Virginia’s aspiring and establishing farmers. “This is a shift on how we approach beginning farmer education for adults,” said Niewolny. “Using participatory methods, our project will provide the first statewide assessment of expressed programming needs for Virginia’s beginning farmers and the service providers who work with them.”
With the coalition at the heart of the project, Virginia Tech will work with several non-governmental and community-based organizations across the Commonwealth to support beginning farmers through classroom, online, and hands-on learning opportunities.
Topics center on whole-farm planning in such focus areas as small-farm business planning, land acquisition and tenure, agricultural marketing, and sustainable farming practices. In addition, the project aims to include mentoring and social networking opportunities through which beginning farmers can gain vital skills, information, technical assistance, and business capacity for long-term agricultural viability.
“There appears to be a need to connect established farmers with beginning farmers,” explained Niewolny. “Here, we can directly strengthen hands-on training and networking opportunities by facilitating the exchange of knowledge and skills of experienced farmers and ranchers with the beginning farmer community.”
Coalition members include Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia State University’s Small Farm Outreach Program, AgriAbility Virginia Project, VT EarthWorks, Local Food Hub, Virginia Association for Biological Farming, Young Farmers of Virginia, Virginia FFA Association, Virginia Farm Bureau’s Young Farmers, Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services’ Virginia Farm Link Program, and Hethwood Market.
USDA’s National Institute of Food and Agriculture awarded the grant through its Beginning Farmer and Rancher Development Program, an education, training, technical assistance, and outreach program designed to help U.S. farmers and ranchers — specifically those who have been farming or ranching for 10 years or fewer. Under the program, which was established through the 2008 farm bill, NIFA makes grants to organizations that will implement programs to help beginning farmers and ranchers.
Nationally ranked among the top research institutions of its kind, Virginia Tech’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences focuses on the science and business of living systems through learning, discovery, and engagement. The college’s comprehensive curriculum gives more than 2,400 students in a dozen academic departments a balanced education that ranges from food and fiber production to economics to human health. Students learn from the world’s leading agricultural scientists, who bring the latest science and technology into the classroom.