National Agricultural Leaders To Gather in Virginia Beach With Goal Of Strengthening Support of U.S. Small Farmers

More than 700 agricultural leaders from across the country will gather in Virginia Beach September 20-22 to identify ways to secure the future success of our nation’s small farms and ranches, numbers of which have been dwindling for decades, while the number of very large farms has seen rapid growth.

The conference specifically focuses on small farmers because of the vital role they play in the national economy, environmental sustainability, local (agro-) biodiversity, and landscape and cultural heritage. Yet they face unique challenges that set them apart from mid-size or large farming operations.

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.

Started in 1996 in Nashville, Tenn., the national small farm conference is held every three to four years around the country for U.S. and international stakeholders from academia, non-governmental and governmental organizations, foundations and grassroots farming communities whose goal is to support economic growth and quality of life for small farmers and ranchers. The 2016 conference, the seventh in the series, is 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,” will put specific emphasis on women and youth in agriculture, farmworkers, immigrants, socially-disadvantaged producers and returning veterans. Topics this year include urban agriculture, food deserts and food security, as well as the more traditional farming topics of risk management, organic production, marketing challenges and more.

U.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.

Additionally, with the average age of farmers in the U.S. topping 58 years, only six percent of U.S. farmers are under the age of 35. When young farmers start their own small farm—which they will need to do to secure the future of small farming in America—they are often faced with scarce start up financing options and limited available land, coupled with still trying to pay off student loans and starting a family.

Why does the size of the farm matter where your food comes from? According to Denis Ebodaghe, conference co-chair and national program leader for USDA NIFA’s Small Farm Program, “Small farmers are usually more efficient, producing more food per acre than commercial operations. They also support the sustainability of rural and farm economies, as well as protect and enhance natural resources.”

These small, but efficient farmers are also playing an important role in the latest trends of farm-to-table, including knowing where your food comes from, eating local and shopping at farmer’s markets.

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.

The 7th National Small Farm Conference is sponsored, in part, by USDA, Farm Credit, Virginia Farm Bureau, Virginia FAIRS, the Sustainable Agriculture Research & Education and Morning Ag Clips.

For more information, including how to register, submit an abstract or become a sponsor, visit www.vsu.edu/nationalsmallfarmconference.