Small farm operations on increase

Published 6:29 pm Tuesday, April 30, 2019

By Diana McFarland

Managing editor

Isle of Wight may seem suburban — at least at the northern end — but the county has more farms today than it did 20 years ago. 

The difference is that the farms are smaller and tend to generate less income, according to the 2017 Census of Agriculture published by United States Department of Agriculture. 

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In 1997, Isle of Wight had 190 farms, with 23, or 12 percent, of those generating less than $2,500 a year.

Twenty years later, in 2017, Isle of Wight had 237 farms, but 42 percent, 100 farms, earned less than $2,500 a year. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

“We are seeing an increase in small farms in Isle of Wight and across the state,” said Isle of Wight County Extension Agent Livvy Preisser.

Many of those are small family farms or homesteads, she said. 

That seems to be the case, according to the Census. 

In 1997, there were six farms with up to nine acres. In 2017, there were 36, according to the Census. 

Preisser said she has been working with smaller farmers in niche markets, such as growing lavender, strawberries or pumpkins or starting small livestock herds of chickens and goats. 

The USDA defines a farm as any place from which $1,000 or more of agricultural products were produced or sold, or normally would have been produced or sold, during the census year, according to Herman Ellison with the USDA. 

Michael and Jamie Oliver, who own Lowe Farms in Longview, are considered one of those smaller, niche farmers. 

The couple raises Clun Forest sheep and some cattle, as well as chickens for eggs. 

Jamie said one of the challenges smaller farmers face is that they lack the subsidies and tax benefits provided to larger operations. Also, customers want to pay the same price for a dozen eggs, for example, that they would pay in the grocery store. 

If they sold eggs for the same price as those in the grocery store, they wouldn’t make any money as it costs more to produce those eggs on a smaller operation, said Jamie. 

Jamie encourages those interested in purchasing straight from the farmer to visit the farm and see what all those USDA terms mean — such as grass fed and free range. 

See what you like before you buy it, she said. 

At the same time, cotton, corn, soybeans, wheat and peanuts continue to be the                                       largest cash crops grown in Isle of Wight County. 

Cotton and soybeans lead the pack, with 13,316 and 16,718 acres harvested, respectively, in 2017, followed by corn at 10,598 acres.

Peanuts, once a major crop in Isle of Wight prior to the 2002 Farm bill, has seen a decrease in acreage from 1997 by 184 percent — from 13,075 acres in 1997 to just 4,592 in 2017. 

The 2002 Farm Bill eliminated the longstanding peanut quota system, which provided support pricing for the crop. 

The census also shows that Virginia farmers are getting older, but more than a quarter of them are new or beginning farmers, according to the Farm Bureau.

The average age of a Virginia farmer is 58.5 years, while farmers younger than 35 are 8.5 percent of all farmers in the Commonwealth, according to the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

“We know the farming economy is difficult right now, but all of us have this passion for farming, Sturgis said. “If you have that fire in you, then there’s nothing you can’t accomplish if you set your mind to it. That’s the mindset of young people going into farming today, said Kyle Sturgis, chairman of the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation.

In Virginia, the number of farms fell by about 6 percent from the last census in 2012, according to the Farm Bureau, but the market value of products sold was up 6 percent. 

The U.S. Department of Agriculture conducts the census every five years. The 2017 census collected more detailed demographic information about the nation’s farmers than in previous years.