By Seth Coffman
Many of our children show an interest in farming early on. Think about how many preschoolers play with toy tractors, farm playsets and plastic farm animals. Some of these children go on to participate in one of the many livestock and agriculture 4-H clubs offered in Shenandoah County, but unfortunately many of these same children soon lose their interest in farming or think they ca't make it a career and move onto other things.
This has to change if we want to have a strong farming sector in the decades ahead.
The average age of Shenandoah County's 1,073 principal farm operators is about 58 years old, not far from the national average of 57. Between 2002 and 2007, the number of U.S. farmers over age 65 grew by nearly 22 percent; for every farmer and rancher under the age of 25, there are five who are 75 or older. Preparing the next generation to become farm owners and operators is important not just for the ongoing success of our agricultural sector but also for our health, food safety and quality of life. The bottom line: if we don't have a new generation of farmers to grow the food we eat, we will become more and more reliant on faraway, industrial farm operations for our food and sustenance.
The United States Department of Agriculture has programs aimed at keeping more young people in farming and at boosting interest in locally grown food. It is crucial that we continue to support these types of programs so we can sow the seeds for the continuing success of our agricultural sector by motivating, training, and engaging the next generation to choose the difficult but rewarding work of farming.
The best place to start is in our schools. Agriculture-related courses and extracurricular activities are vital resources for training and motivating future farmers. Shenandoah County is fortunate to have strong agriculture-related programs starting in our middle schools with in-school agriculture classes and after-school Future Farmers of America (FFA) programs.
At the 2012 Virginia FFA Convention, the Central High School FFA chapter was named top overall among Virginia's 190 chapters. In the team competition, Stonewall Jackson won the Milk Quality and Production contest, and Central took top honors in the Agricultural Issues and Meats Evaluation contests. All three of our county's high school teams moved onto the national convention. In addition, Strasburg 2012 graduate Addie Guthrie was elected state FFA secretary for 2012-2013; and Brian Walsh, a 2011 Central grad, served as state FFA president for 2011-2012 and is now a candidate for national office.
All of these are remarkable achievements, and we need to create the conditions for more of our students to excel in FFA and related activities. Particularly at a time when school budgets are under siege, it's critical to make sure that our agriculture programs stay strong and grow stronger.
What happens to high school students after they graduate from high school is equally important. The recent announcement by Lord Fairfax Community College (LFCC) of a new introductory course in agribusiness and financial management for this fall is exciting news and we hope the start of a "new" agribusiness curriculum at LFCC. Among those who have applauded the LFCC's embrace of the new course is Shenandoah County farmer and supervisor Steve Baker. Baker, an agribusiness graduate of the LFCC, said he recalls Ag-Hort Day as an example of the role that LFCC can play in promoting agriculture. The annual Ag-Hort Day brought together more than 400 area students for livestock, meat and plant judging contests.
Although he acknowledges that rebuilding the program from the ground up will take time, Baker said he believes the need is there and he is excited to see the steps LFCC is taking.
"I probably have 20 T-shirts saved from all the years I attended Ag-Hort Day, and I look forward to adding a few more to my collection," he said.
For new and experienced farmers, Virginia Commissioner of Agriculture Matt Lohr recently announced a comprehensive program to attract and support beginning and expanding farmers. The Certified Farm Seeker program is for "people who don't have any expectation of inheriting a farm but who have a strong desire to be a farmer," according to a news release from the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (VDACS). The release goes on to explain that the program is "designed to help all levels of beginning and experienced young farmers who want to begin farming or to expand their existing farm." For more information on the program, go to VDACs website at www.vdacs.virginia.gov.
Yet another program that works to support and sustain a strong farming sector in Virginia is a series of workshops aimed at connecting farmers interested in transitioning into retirement with new farmers looking for land and experienced farmers looking to expand. In partnership with Virginia Farm Bureau's Young Farmer Committee, the Office of Farmland Preservation of the VDACS will host the third of three Farm Link and Transition Pilot Workshops from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Aug. 4 at the Weyers Cave Community Center in Weyers Cave. See www.vdacs.virginia.gov for more information on the Aug. 4 program.
How else can we support Virginia farming? It's easy ... buy local food! One of the best ways to get started is to participate in the $10-a-Week Challenge launched in Shenandoah County in June. If Shenandoah County residents spend at least $10 a week throughout the year on locally produced farm products, $9.6 million will be returned to our local agricultural sector.
The Challenge ends Oct. 6, and you'll need to get started by July 29 to complete the challenge and earn a distinctive reusable market bag.
After Oct. 6, we hope you will continue to buy local and shop local at our farmers' markets, farm stores and other locally grown food venues. Shenandoah Forum thanks you for your support of a strong farming sector in Shenandoah County! For more information about Shenandoah Forum or the $10-a-Week Challenge, please visit our website at www.ShenandoahForum.org, find us on Facebook, or call us at 540-984-7003.
This is the first in a series of guest columns on area agriculture and conservation issues provided by Shenandoah Forum, a group of citizen volunteers established in 2001 to encourage active and informed citizen participation in maintaining Shenandoah County's rural, agricultural and historic character, a healthy environment, and sustainable economy.
Seth Coffman is chairman of Shenandoah Forum.