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ore than 400 years after English settlers began growing tobacco and other crops on the shores near Jamestown, agriculture remains Virginia’s biggest in-

dustry. The state has 46,000 farms covering 8.3 million acres, or about a third of its total land area. The market value of Virginia agriculture products sold in 2012 was $3.75 billion. According to the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, agriculture has an annual economic impact on Virginia of $52 billion and provides nearly 311,000 jobs. Yet farming looks very different today than it did in the 1600s. Tobacco, which for centuries served as the cornerstone of Virginia’s agricultural economy, has lost much of the market power it once held as societal attitudes toward smoking have dramatically shifted. The bulk of food production moved during the 1800s from the East Coast to the Midwest, and technological advances have enabled farmers to grow and harvest food on a massive scale. Some of those changes have their roots in western Virginia: Cyrus McCormick invented the reaper (a tool for cutting and gathering crops at harvest) in Rockbridge County — solving a problem that had confounded farmers for centuries — before moving his company to Chicago to take advantage of the growing market in the Midwest. The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) five-year Census of Agriculture serves as the most recent snapshot in national agriculture, though the figures already were two years out of date when released last year. Still, the numbers from the 2012 census demonstrate trends that hold today. Put briefly, there are fewer farms yet more farmland in production than five years ago. The

value of products sold ticked up sharply — increasing from an average of $61,334 per farm in 2007 to $81,540 in 2012. Government payments to Virginia farms increased by an even higher percentage. Another troublesome trend? Farmers are getting older. Although a new crop of younger farmers continues to enter the industry, many who are approaching retirement age are finding it difficult to find someone to take over their farms. “We’re trying with some success to find potential farmers that are young and don’t have resources, and match them up with people with resources who don’t have help,” says Gordon Metz, a Henry County beef cattle and hay producer who is serving his 10th term on the Virginia Farm Bureau Federation board of directors. His region includes Alleghany, Bedford, Botetourt, Craig, Franklin, Henry, Patrick and Roanoke counties. More modern operations In his area, he notices a few younger farmers using high-tech equipment on an ever-growing amount of land. One of his Southern Virginia neighbors was succeeded by two sons, he says, who do a good business growing corn and other crops on more than 1,200 acres spread out in 10- and 20-acre parcels. “It’s one of the most efficient agricultural operations I know, absolutely pristine,” Metz says. “What they’ve done is, since there’s just a couple of them, they have modernized to do twice as much work today as the average person did 20 years ago. Why do all these farms today have such big tractors? It’s because they don’t have the help.” In the 5th Congressional District, which stretches from Charlottesville south to Danville, the biggest product by sale value was cattle/calf operations ($143 million), followed by cow milk ($104 million). ROANOKE BUSINESS


Roanoke Business- Sept. 2015  
Roanoke Business- Sept. 2015  

COVER STORY: The changing fortunes of farming: Virginia's biggest industry is evolving.