By Kim Woodwell
Agriculture has been the heart and soul of Virginia's economy for centuries. Today agriculture is Virginia's largest industry -- contributing $55 billion to the state's economy yearly.
Shenandoah County is a strong fifth among Virginia counties in production. Agriculture is the highest-earning industry in Shenandoah County with an annual income of more than $100 million. But it is more than an important contributor to our economy. Agriculture is responsible for providing many of the qualities of life we cherish as a community.
The central role of agriculture in Shenandoah County is affirmed in the county's recent adoption of the rural areas plan. The product of more than five years of collaboration among residents and officials, the plan was initiated to protect our farmland and rural heritage for future generations.
Thirty Shenandoah County farms have been recognized as Century Farms, farms that have been in operation for 100 years or more. They serve as a testament to the generations of local families who have, through fat and lean economies, dedicated their lives to farming.
Our local agricultural heritage also is on display at the Shenandoah County Farm and Alms House, which lies on 200 acres near Maurertown. The property was deeded to the county in 1798 as an institution to serve residents in need, as it does to this day. The recent funding of renovations to the Alms House speaks to its sustained value as a vital community landmark.
For Shenandoah County's younger residents, there are successful Future Farmers of America and 4-H programs helping us build a vital next-generation agricultural sector. Among the people keeping this tradition alive are Sherry Heishman and Dana Fisher, teachers at Central High School, who won Virginia Outstanding Agriculture Education Teacher of the Year awards in 2009 and 2010.
In addition, Virginia Tech recently announced the Virginia Beginning Farmer and Rancher Coalition Project, a promising initiative to provide essential assistance for first-time farmers. The three-year project is supported by a $740,000 USDA grant.
Shenandoah County also has an active local Virginia Farm Bureau chapter, with more than 1,800 members. The Farm Bureau provides support for farms of all sizes and types and farmers of all ages.
In other activities to promote and sustain local agriculture, the Shenandoah Valley Buy Fresh Buy Local guide features farms, markets, retailers and restaurants where local fresh, seasonal food is available. The production of the guide is based on a simple fact: If each household in Shenandoah County spent $10 per week on local produce and farm-based Virginia products, we'd generate more than $9 million in additional annual income for our agricultural sector (www.buylocalshenvalley.org).
The Shenandoah Forum, crated in 2001, is committed to working with others to make sure our county's farms and farm families remain a vital part of our community. In 2010, we launched the Farm to Table campaign, which was designed to help meet the needs of our agriculture sector. Programs were held on farm succession planning, agricultural marketing and farm economics in the Shenandoah Valley.
As a follow-up, the forum's 2011 agricultural initiative is using ideas gleaned from those events and will focus on strengthening and increasing local food networks, getting local foods into county schools, institutions and businesses and supporting our farm entrepreneurs.
As we observe Virginia Agriculture Week/Agriculture Literacy Week, March 13-19, we hope you'll join us as together we seek ways to ensure that farming can remain at the heart of Shenandoah County's economy and way of life.
Woodwell is executive director of the Shenandoah Forum (www.ShenandoahForum.org), a group of county residents working to provide accurate information to help meet the rising pressures of growth and development in a manner that maintains economic viability, high quality of life and our rural character.