Agriculture in the county at a ‘point of transition and uncertainty’
More than 100 local farmers and other interested residents turned out last Saturday at the Washington Fire Hall to talk about the state of agriculture in Rappahannock County. Billed as An Agricultural Conversation, the meeting was organized to “explore opportunities to improve the prospects for farming, food production, and food-related businesses in the county,” according to the session description.
The event was organized by a steering committee made up of an impressive group of local farmers and others whose businesses depend on agriculture: Michael Sands, John Genho, David Massie, Van Carney, Molly Peterson, Mike Cannon, Maya Atlas, Jonathan Uribe, Melanie Kopjanski, Stacey Carlberg, Kate Wofford, Jenna Brownell, Blake Brown, Kenner Love, Craig Batchelor, Sheila Gresinger, John McCarthy, Laurie Smith, and Colleen O’Bryant.
In his opening remarks, Sands, who raises grass-fed beef, characterized agriculture in the county as at a “point of transition and uncertainty. This conversation was stimulated by the fact that farming is an integral part of Rappahannock.”
In fact, a countywide survey conducted last year indicated that maintaining family farms was ranked the fourth most important concern to residents out of 25 major issues.
Yet, according to the 2012 agricultural census, the latest data available, said Sands, the number of farms and the acreage being farmed in Rappahannock is decreasing. In 2012, the county had 397 farms, down from 416 in 2007. Land in farms in 2012 was 62,818 acres, down from 65,084 acres in 2007. And the average farm lost $6,000 over the same period.
Keynote speaker John Piotti, executive director of the American Farmland Trust, said that what is happening locally reflects a national trend. According to a comprehensive AFT study of the county’s agricultural land, he pointed out, farmland is being lost at 120 acres an hour, or one million acres a year. The AFT, whose motto is “No Farms No Food,” is dedicated to protecting farmland and helping farmers.
Piotti called farmland one of the country’s “critical resources. Farmland is infrastructure” and must be protected.
Among the factors that are contributing to the loss of farmland, he said, is that agriculture is a hard business with thin margins — and it’s attracting few young people. Of today’s farmers, 83 percent are over the age of 45. And there are fewer multi-generational farms in business.
“Land values are skyrocketing,” he said. And development pressure from neighboring areas makes the non-farm use of land more attractive.
Climate change, too, is a factor.
“If you’re a farmer, you don’t deny [climate change],” he said. “You’re living it.”
However, despite the challenges, he also sees great opportunities for the future of farming in Rappahannock County.
“Rappahannock still has a critical mass of farms,” he said. “The community embraces conservation. And you are in a great location — far enough away from a major city to have real farming, yet close enough for good markets.”
Discussion among the attendees after the presentation raised a number of issues and ideas that “could lead to serving and improving the county’s farm sector,” said Sands, such as the need for housing for young people wishing to intern at local farms, understanding how to lease land from large landowners, creating a consortium of farmers to share ideas and communicate out to the greater community, improving broadband capabilities, and collaborating with nonprofits and other organizations that have resources to help sustain farming activities.
In a phone call Monday, Sands said he was heartened by the turn-out at the meeting and the enthusiasm of the participants.
“Afterward, some people even approached me to talk about business opportunities,” he said.
Sands plans to develop proposals based on the meeting discussions and continue to talk with people in the community, non-farmers as well as farmers.
“Anyone in the community with an interest in [the county’s agricultural viability] is a valid stakeholder,” he said.