Last Wednesday morning, despite remnants of Tropical Storm Julia dropping up to 13 inches of rain on Southeastern Virginia, nearly 700 U.S. agricultural leaders gathered for breakfast at the Virginia Beach Convention Center to kick off the 7th National Small Farm Conference. As Dr. M. Ray McKinnie, Interim Dean of Virginia State University’s College of Agriculture, reminded guests in welcoming remarks, “Significant effort was made by farmers, Extension agents, USDA representatives and more to bring you the Smithfield bacon, Virginia ham, Surry sausage, eggs and potatoes on your plates this morning. We’re here this week to address how to keep that train on track.”
The conference is the seventh in a series held every three to four years across the U.S. for stakeholders from academia, non-governmental and governmental organizations, foundations and grassroots farming communities to ensure the success of farmers and ranchers because of the vital role they play in the national economy and in environmental sustainability, biodiversity, and landscape and cultural heritage. Started in 1996, it is our nation’s largest event to address the needs, challenges and successes of small farmers. The first time in Virginia, it was held September 20-22 and hosted by Virginia State University’s College of Agriculture, Virginia Cooperative Extension and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, with support from Virginia Tech.
This year’s conference, “Creating and Sustaining Small Farmers and Ranchers,” put specific emphasis on women and youth in agriculture, farmworkers, immigrants, socially-disadvantaged producers and returning veterans. According to Thursday’s keynote speaker, Kirk Hanlin, Asst. Chief of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service, “One third of our nation’s farmers are women, generating $12.9 billion on the land they work.” He told the audience that it is up to them, those agricultural leaders that work directly with farmers, to encourage and empower the next generation of women to continue this great work.
This year’s topics also included urban agriculture, food deserts and food security, risk management, organic production and marketing challenges.
Also giving remarks throughout the three days were Dr. Gregory Parham, U.S. Asst. Secretary of Agriculture for Administration, who gave Wednesday’s keynote address, “Creating and Sustaining Small Farmers and Ranchers,” as well as Dr. Basil Gooden, Virginia’s Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry; Dr. Makola Abdullah, Virginia State University President; and David Trimmer, City of Virginia Beach Agriculture Director, among others.
The conference is especially important because the number of small farmers and ranchers has declined for decades, while the number of very large farms has seen rapid growth. This decline is of concern because small farmers are usually more efficient, producing more food per acre than commercial operations, and they support the sustainability of rural and farm economies, as well as protect and enhance natural resources. They are also seen by industry leaders as critical players in finding a solution to how our planet must more than double its food production in the next 34 years to feed the estimated 9.5 billion people populating the globe in 2050.
According to the USDA, a small farm is any farm whose gross cash farm income is less than $350,000. Farms who generate more than that annually are considered commercial farms. A whopping 89 percent of U.S. farms are considered small and operate nearly half of the country’s farmland, however those farms account for only 22 percent of agricultural production in the U.S. The nation’s small farmers produce half the country’s poultry and hay. The next most common commodities they produce are hogs, beef, and cash grains and soybeans. But unlike their larger counterparts, these farmers are more likely to have a high-risk operating profit margin, which means they are more likely to incur farm-related financial problems. They also often have to seek additional employment off the farm, while balancing producing, marketing and selling the food with limited time and staff.