BLACKSBURG—Virginia’s Beginning Farmer & Rancher Coalition Project has been in development since late 2010, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture gave Virginia Tech a $748,000 grant to get the ball rolling.
That time has been spent building relationships between existing farmers, farm groups and would-be farmers, along with Virginia Cooperative Extension agents and other agriculture players such as the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation Young Farmers Committee.
It also was spent creating a whole-farm planning curriculum, designed to take into account the unique circumstances that beginning farmers face in Virginia. There are five modules to the new curriculum: introduction to whole-farm planning; land acquisition and tenure; marketing; holistic business planning; and sustainable farming practices.
"We’ve developed the curriculum. Now we’re going to take it out into the field for the next two years with various partners in our coalition," said Dr. Kim Niewolny, director of the Beginning Farmer and Rancher Project at Virginia Tech and an Extension specialist. "It’s all about being the best fit between the audiences of would-be farmers and current farmers that these groups are working with." One of those groups will be the VFBF Young Farmers Committee, and another will be the Appalachian Sustainable Development Group based in Abingdon. Arrangements for five other coalition groups are still being processed, she said.
The VFBF Young Farmers also are interested in promoting the Virginia Farm Link program, created to assist aspiring farmers and keep working land in production.
"Here in Virginia we have folks who are second-career professionals that may have capital to start a business, but they don’t necessarily have the technical knowledge or a background in farming," Niewolny said.
"We also have a subset of aspiring farmers who may or may not have an agricultural background but are young and eager to farm. But they don’t have the capital or land. And then we have mixtures of these different circumstances."
That was the impetus behind creating a whole-farm planning curriculum, Niewolny said.
"The challenges for beginning farmers are incredible. If we want to help new farmers thrive, we need to offer more than just a business plan or set of resources. So we’re helping them to develop a whole-farm plan that’s unique to each of their needs and interests. It is helpful to remember that many people define success differently," with some wanting additional income, some a lifestyle change, and some a steady income stream strictly from the farm.
In addition to developing the curriculum, the beginning farmer program has been making personal connections among dozens of farm groups, agribusinesses and agriculture agencies to help start mentorship programs.
"We’re finding more peer-mentoring relationship possibilities in places like Floyd County in Southwest Virginia, where there are many farmers who just started themselves a few years ago," Niewolny said. "Then we have more established farmers in Eastern Virginia, where we may need a different approach. … One of the big steps is going through a checklist, deciding whether you’re willing and able to share your farm finances and practices with newcomers, or even just to host farm tours or on-farm events."
The project is asking beginning farmers and would-be farmers to answer some survey questions to help better develop its program. The survey is available at vabeginningfarmer.aee.vt.edu/index.html
Contact Niewolny at 540-231-5784 or Norm Hyde
, VFBF communications, at 804-290-1146.